Volume > Issue > Terms of Service: A Discussion of Social-Media Subterfuge & Death-Dealing Democracy

Terms of Service: A Discussion of Social-Media Subterfuge & Death-Dealing Democracy


By Pieter Vree & Jason M. Morgan | May 2023
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR. Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, writes the Cultural Counterpoint column and teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Japan.

Elon Musk purchased Twitter for a staggering $44 billion this past October. Since assuming control of the popular social-media platform, he’s peeled back the curtain and revealed the previous regime’s malfeasance in censoring all things “politically incorrect.” In light of this and other recent events, NOR contributing editor Jason M. Morgan and NOR editor Pieter Vree revisited the former’s column on the subject (“’Tis Pity We’re All Whores,” Jul.-Aug. 2022) and discussed the implications of Musk’s moves in the broader political and cultural context. What follows is a transcript of their conversation.

Pieter Vree: You wrote that conservatives’ giddiness over Elon Musk’s “hostile takeover” of Twitter drove you to “sorrow” as it was merely “one leftist billionaire seizing the levers from another leftist billionaire.” Yet, Musk has reinstated thousands of banned accounts, including those of notable conservatives Donald Trump and Jordan B. Peterson, and the parodists at Babylon Bee. He’s also exposed the previous management’s behind-the-scenes betrayal of their own rules in banning and shadow-banning certain accounts — especially those of conservatives — and interfacing with government agencies to limit certain politically charged speech — again, mostly by conservatives. Do you wish to recant or revise your assessment of the man?

Jason M. Morgan: I was totally wrong about Musk. He is proving to be much, much better than I expected. My Thanksgiving dinner was crow. My Christmas dinner was my hat.

Vree: I too was wrong in my assessment. What I knew about Musk, in addition to the few oddities about him that have appeared in our News You May Have Missed column, was what’s in the public record: He had made his mark in über-liberal Silicon Valley as one of the principal developers of PayPal and later as the driving force, so to speak, behind Tesla Motor Co. Based on his professional “origin story” — and his dalliances with pop singers — it was easy to pigeonhole him as a run-of-the-mill tech bro, but one boasting mega-bucks, something of an electric-limousine liberal.

Morgan: Musk may make electric cars, but his liberty-mindedness is high octane. He is turning out to be much more pro-free-speech than I expected, almost like a latter-day Julian Assange (of WikiLeaks fame). Musk has been releasing internal information from the Twitter head office. It seems the FBI, the CIA, and other tentacles of the federal government were basically using Twitter as a ventriloquist’s dummy to manipulate information available to the public.

Vree: And as a result, the legacy media — or the Fourth Estate, if we can use French revolutionary terms — which runs interference for the ruling class, has villainized Musk, accusing him of unleashing torrents of racist speech since taking over. We’ve also been treated to the spectacle of Hollywood stars — they never seem to shut up, do they? — urging businesses to pull their advertising from Musk’s Twitter. He’s really upset the apple cart.

Morgan: Or was it the fruit-salad buffet?

Vree: What was really ludicrous was actress Alyssa Milano’s announcing — on Twitter! — that due to Musk’s allowing “hate and white supremacy,” she had turned in her Tesla and bought a Volkswagen. The “tweeps” (i.e., Twitter users) were quick to point out that Volkswagen was founded by an actual white supremacist, Adolf Hitler.

Morgan: These displays of eye-watering ignorance have been an overall fringe benefit of Twitter, pre- and post-Musk. The rich and famous can’t help themselves: They confess their general shallowness and cluelessness in tweet after inane tweet. Ditto, or worse, for academics and public-school teachers, who keep outing themselves as in the mood for cultural Marxism and violent revolution by, for example, promoting transgenderism in the classroom, shouting down or “canceling” opponents, and vilifying parents who raise concerns.

Vree: The Libs of TikTok account was great at exposing this kind of rot. It, too, was banned under Twitter’s ancien régime and restored by Musk.

To his great credit, Musk has shined light into Twitter’s dark recesses. And he isn’t doing it alone. He’s commissioned a few reputable independent journalists to scour Twitter’s internal communiqués to find out how government officials have been censoring the free flow of information.

Morgan: You’re talking about the “Twitter Files” commissioned by Musk and compiled by Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi, among others. They contain a lot of what we already knew by assumption and experience: Twitter suppressed accounts, silenced Trump out of disdain (without his having violated any Twitter policies), suppressed reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop, and worked with government agencies to combat dissenting opinions about the presidential election and COVID policies.

One of the most explosive (according to Musk) editions of the Twitter Files shows how embedded the FBI was in the Twitter corps, demanding or requesting the banning of even very minor accounts that merely made jokes about voter fraud. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, speculated that the FBI and CIA might have been “running assets” at the tech companies, but now it’s been confirmed. And that confirmation comes largely because of Musk. He has really changed the atmosphere in the United States. People are free to — gasp! — speak the truth out loud again.

I guess the inevitable next step is for John Brennan, former director of the CIA, to go on Face the Nation and solemnly declare that Musk is a Russian spy.

Vree: Before proceeding, we should address something that’s likely on the mind of those who aren’t among the “very online,” and that is: Why should anybody care? Isn’t this just a virtual tempest in a digital teapot?

Morgan: Good idea. I’ve never tweeted in my life, but that doesn’t stop me from having strong views about what goes on behind the scenes at Twitter. Now that you mention it, it does strike me as odd. Why would someone like me give a flip about a company whose services I have never once used?

Vree: I care because the NOR has a Twitter page. But even those who don’t tweet, or otherwise have no interest in social media, should care, too. Why? Micah Meadowcroft, online editor at The American Conservative, said it well. “As technology has grown both in capacities and use,” he wrote (Dec. 14, 2022), “it has seemed to outstrip human scale and to mediate every aspect of human life, to the point where it might cease to be an object of human intention and will.” Instead, it has begun to appear as “almost a sort of god, subjecting humanity to a will of its own.” Citing C.S. Lewis, Meadowcroft reminds us that “the growing power of science or technology over biological nature is in fact the growing power of some men over other men.”

Like it or not — and as much as you or I might try to ignore it — social media is a powerful force in our world, and not necessarily a force for good. It’s supplanted the Big Three television networks as our culture’s primary source of news, information, advertising, and entertainment. It’s become a beast unchained, with a will and a telos of its own.

Morgan: Well said by both you and Meadowcroft. And by C.S. Lewis. It really does bear emphasizing that when we talk about Twitter, we are talking about fallen human beings who have used it to gain advantages over their perceived adversaries. But that mere tool, when put to the service of sinful human nature, outstripped the designs of its creators and started to make itself all-too-readily available to those who sought power over others. Or maybe all this deviousness was baked in from the beginning. Tech platforms have long touted open access and unbounded communication while mining users’ personal data and throttling their discourse. Twitter’s creators might not have envisioned the dystopian engine it has become, but the elements for it were all there from the outset.

Vree: Anybody who’s not convinced that Twitter has been weaponized in the pursuit of political power should consider the case of Douglass Mackey, a prolific social-media influencer who posted on Twitter under the nom de keyboard Ricky Vaughn. He had amassed a following of 58,000 tweeps by 2016, when he tweeted out a meme — one he’s called “satirical” — saying people could vote for Hillary Clinton via text before Election Day. For this alleged “crime,” Mackey is being charged with conspiracy, and the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking a ten-year prison sentence. All for posting a meme. A meme!

Morgan: The DOJ claims his tweet fooled some 5,000 Hillary supporters into trying to vote by text.

Vree: If that’s true, is this a shame-on-him or a shame-on-them situation?

Morgan: I would say both. Either way, it proves one thing: We are governed by sociopaths. I remember the good old days when the FBI was against grooming children and overthrowing the government, and when the CIA did that sort of thing in other people’s countries, not ours.

This brings to mind an article, and a subsequent letters-to-the-editor exchange, in the NOR ten years or so ago about whether it was, in retrospect, a moral decision to have been a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

Vree: Ah yes, you’re talking about Thom Nickels’s article “The Trials of Following One’s Conscience” (Jul.-Aug. 2013) and the follow-up letters (Oct. 2013).

Morgan: That’s right. It was the first time in my life I took conscientious objection seriously. Until then, I’d been pretty harsh on conscientious objectors. I conscientiously objected to conscientious objection! I thought it was a cop-out, something hippies did so they could stay in their nudist camps and keep smoking weed.

I’ve never served a day in the military myself, so my position was riddled with inconsistency and hypocrisy. All the same, I had no love for those who didn’t step up. It seemed patently un-American. The stunts of Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the Catonsville Nine, and some anti-war nuns sealed the deal for me. If you recall, Berrigan, his brother Philip (also a priest), and others broke into military facilities and draft offices and damaged equipment and theatrically burned draft cards with homemade napalm. Some anti-war sisters protested the war during Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1972. It was all Code Pink stuff to my mind. What a bunch of attention-seekers.

But it was, if I remember correctly, a remark in the letters about Nickels’s having gotten out of serving his country only to leave a gap that some other body had to fill that jarred me out of my anti-CO complacency.

The implication of that letter-writer’s remark is that the state moves inexorably. If Person A doesn’t wear the uniform and fire the rifle, then Person B will have to. We have no choice. The government will have its wars, one way or the other. There are good arguments on both sides about the war in Vietnam. Helping an ally, stopping the spread of communism — these are important things. But Nickels points out in his response to the letters that these arguments are specious. Nickels doesn’t even mention the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the casus belli that got the United States locked into the land war in Southeast Asia and was grounded in fake news: a supposed attack on an American warship by North Vietnamese forces. The “incident” to which the United States had to respond never happened.

A generation later, Washington was off to war again, this time in Iraq. But the casus belli — weapons of mass destruction — was, again, fake news. I had to admit that there was a pattern there, and Nickels had been right to be skeptical of the government.

Vree: Remember Hiram Johnson’s dictum? “The first casualty of war is truth.” The proclamation of the truth depends on the preservation of free speech. Our nation has been at war — in one form or another, often in numerous theaters at once — nearly constantly since World War II, and not always for clear or just reasons. Is it any wonder our government circumscribes free speech, even in the Twitterverse? “Loose lips” and all that.

Morgan: It really is a travesty anywhere, but especially in the United States of America. First Amendment rights? No, none for you, Joe Citizen. Either shut up or go to jail. But here’s a gun, so now go out and export American-style “freedom” to those living in benighted backwaters.

Vree: Die on foreign soil or rot in jail. So much for “land of the free”!

Morgan: One thing Nickels taught me, and something I surely wouldn’t have figured out on my own, is that military “service” is often forced against the will, and the conscience, of the people doing the dying and killing. We hear a lot these days about our “sacred democracy.” We allegedly live in one. We go off to fight for democracy in foreign lands. But there are two problems with this. One, democracy is not sacred. Two, war is not democratic. You don’t get to say that a war is wrong. You have no voice. War is its own voice, its own cacophony, rather.

Vree: You’re absolutely right. In our democracy, wars can be launched by fiat, at the whim of our current leader. Did you know that the U.S. Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942? Yet, since then, we’ve been mired in military operations in places as far-flung as Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Grenada, Honduras, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Ukraine. Whew!

Morgan: If the world has a “neighborhood bully,” we’re it.

Vree: What say do we the people have about our government’s engaging in these endless overseas conflicts, supposedly to protect our interests and “way of life”? Not much. What choice do we have? You can vote Republican or Democrat, and one constant remains: You’ll find yourself at war.

What say did we have in Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes in Syria? What say did we have in Biden’s decision to furnish Ukraine with some $30 billion dollars in aid and matériel? What say will we have if Biden decides to defend Ukraine or attack Russia or both? If it comes to that, what say will those who get conscripted have who are morally opposed to such a war? Their only option is conscientious objection.

It’s a real commentary on “democracy” and war: The only vote you get against war, namely, refusing to be in one, gets you thrown in prison.

Morgan: It’s a kind of democracy in retrospect, we might say. Those who say “no” to Washington warmongers suffer consequences for it, but they usually turn out to have been more than justified in making that choice. The Pentagon has a poor record of winning wars. Our Masters of War aren’t so masterful at their craft. But conscientious objectors have a nearly perfect slate. They are almost always right to be against whatever the Pentagon is ginning up.

Vree: You mentioned “sacred democracy.” Were you being ironic? Because democracy is, in a sense, our national religion, and foreign wars our modern-day Crusades. Only rather than retaking the Holy Land from infidels, we’re bombing the hell out of infidels in order to convert them. Remember, Jason, we’re making the world safe for democracy! It’s evangelism by bloodbath.

Morgan: The State Department props up the president of Ukraine — our own version of Manchuria — and the CIA runs beaucoup coups in Africa and Asia, but average Americans must not soil the sacrosanct precinct where “democracy” is exalted.

Vree: That’s why so many people are up in arms over the January 6 “coup.” Our sacred halls of democracy were violated! Heathens entered the Holy of Holies! Oh, the horror.

Ironically, even Jake Angeli, the infamous QAnon Shaman, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for obstructing an official proceeding on January 6, told 60 Minutes that the U.S. Senate floor is — you guessed it — a “sacred chamber.”

Morgan: I can already see his post-prison book deal and talk-show tour coming together.

Vree: Even establishment media outlets are telegraphing this teaching: The Washington Post adopted “Democracy Dies in Darkness” as its slogan shortly after Trump was inaugurated president. You know, the would-be autocrat who was going to impose a modern-day Third Reich on unsuspecting Americans.

Morgan: The meltdown among the liberal establishment and their media lapdogs in reaction to Trump’s candidacy and presidency jarred me out of whatever illusions I had left about our “democratic” country. A guy with a fabulous corn-silk comb-over was suddenly Hitler, and I thought, good grief, why are people losing their minds over this guy? He was a reality-TV star. Get a grip and drop the Third Reich stuff! But it just got worse and worse.

So much has happened over the past six years: Operation Crossfire Hurricane, the spying on Trump’s team and the railroading of his supporters, the Steele Dossier, and more. For all of its talk about our “sacred democracy,” the federal government sure isn’t very democratic.

Vree: To extend my metaphor, if democracy is our national religion, then voting is a liturgical act. You can tell the true believers: they’re the ones walking around with “I Voted” stickers on their chests — after the fashion of Catholics who walk around with ashes on their foreheads to mark the beginning of Lent. Only the former are puffed up, and the latter penitents.

Or, perhaps, more than a religion, our two-party system is a spectator sport. We root, root, root for the “home team” (Democrats or Republicans) and enjoy a vicarious sense of glory when our side defeats the “away team.” You wave your red pennant; I wave my blue one. Either way you like it, the arena is filled with fanatics.

Morgan: This brings me back again to Nickels’s points about conscientious objection. Like religious dogmas or fanatical devotions to favorite teams, wars, too, seem to move to their own logic, to have minds of their own. Much more darkly, they consume human bodies, and there’s nothing, we think, that anyone can do about it. Hence the comment that if Nickels didn’t go to Vietnam, someone else would have had to take his place.

Vree: And now the war machine might be priming us to fight for “freedom” in Ukraine. But what are the chances that won’t become another Vietnam or Afghanistan? You’re right that the Pentagon has a poor track record of winning wars.

But when it comes to the culture wars, the Pentagon is on the winning side. It makes me wonder: With the military going “woke,” will we even be capable of winning another hot war?

Morgan: Not if our military continues busying itself with inanities like “maternity flightsuits.” Remember a couple years ago when Tucker Carlson and some other pundits had a field day with the Air Force’s rollout of flightsuits for pregnant women? It’s highly disturbing that the U.S. government, which has overseen the murder of 63 million and counting of its unborn citizens, plus untold millions more overseas, is trying to get pregnant women into airplanes so that bombing runs can continue apace.

Vree: Even a woman’s “right to choose” won’t interfere with our war aims. Someone suit up Sgt. Preggers, stat, so she can go scorch some earth!

Morgan: Women are supposed to nurture their children, not kill them. And also not kill other people’s children. The “maternity flightsuits” dustup revealed that patriotism has come to mean, for many people — including many women — combat.

Vree: It’s not dissimilar to our attitude about commerce: corporations insist, and feminists agree, that even pregnancy shouldn’t prevent working women from greasing the cogs of our capitalist economy. The sales must go on! It’s no wonder our government — until Dobbs federally, and at the state level currently — has been so strident about keeping abortion “safe and legal.”

The state demands death from its females, whether they’re in stirrups at a Planned Parenthood clinic or in the cockpit of a supersonic aircraft.

Morgan: I don’t want any part of “maternity flightsuits,” and a lot more besides. I don’t want to kill anyone. I want no part of the violence the state demands. I want no truck with the transparent lies of the political system. I want to live in peace and truth.

Vree: That’s a big ask in these times. Maybe too big.

Morgan: Well, how can we live in a political world that we know is mostly corrupt? I don’t think of those crooks in Washington as representing me in any way. They give me the royal creeps, pretty much all of them. We’ve got gangsters in power, and lawbreakers making the rules.

Vree: Don’t tell me you thought Trump was going to change all that.

Morgan: No, no. It’s not that Trump is going to save America, or ever was. He’s probably a tax fraud. But I’m from southern Louisiana; we expect anyone in politics to be dirty. And Trump’s lies are the classic politician’s repertoire. At the same time, even the dirtiest politicians of the past — for example, Edwin Edwards and Huey P. Long — had a humane streak. For all their myriad faults, Long, Edwards, and even Trump weren’t sociopaths who lie for the sake of lying. Politics is by and for the fallen, but it isn’t supposed to be a gateway drug to total depravity.

The majority of our political leaders are morally bankrupt. They lie for a living and call it the “fact-checked” truth. They lie and lie and don’t even seem to know they are doing it — and it’s all for their own sake. It’s amazing how much conscience a federal pension will buy. The disease of conceit is like a plague among these people.

I would take wheeling-and-dealing, greased-palm, bluster-and-bombast Huey P. Long over the likes of Brennan, Clapper, Comey, McCabe, Fauci, Psaki — name a hundred more. At least he cared about the common man. If only a little. The current crop in power are vipers and sharks. The more I give them anything at all, even my vote, the dirtier I feel.

Vree: So, you’re saying there are terms of service when it comes to the government, and you don’t agree to them.

Morgan: That’s what I’m saying. I opt out. I conscientiously object.

Vree: Well, then, what do you propose for a solution?

Morgan: The recently deceased David L. Schindler edited a book a while back about Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. The title included the phrase Love Alone Is Credible, which, of course, is the title of one of Balthasar’s books. In Balthasar’s, and Schindler’s, work I find a call to real love, really willing the good of the other, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it. This, in turn, requires seeing the other as a human being, and speaking the truth to the other as a fellow child of God.

Vree: Why can’t the government do that?

Morgan: Because the government — our government — lies, maims, cheats, steals, and kills. I will not go down under the ground just because someone tells me that death’s coming around. If World War III breaks out with Russia — or maybe we’re in it already — then we will all have to evaluate our terms of service. Whom shall we serve?

Vree: We gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord.

Morgan: I’m going with the latter. Ring them bells. We Christians ought to go back and read St. Augustine and learn that we live in a time of complete moral collapse at the institutional level, just like when Rome fell.

Dorothy Day had it right all along. We’ll live out in the open and love our neighbors, and then go to prison when the state comes asking us to kill our neighbors and we flat-out refuse. Those are my terms of service. And they’re not up for negotiation.


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