Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Twitter suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy-mongering Republican congresswoman from Georgia, for 12 hours Monday night for continuing to spread dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, a company spokesperson told CNN. In recent days, the platform had labeled two of Greene’s tweets as “misleading” – if she persists in spreading lies, she could be suspended from the platform permanently.
This was a good move on Twitter’s part: tech companies need to do much more to prevent the dissemination of conspiracy theories, lies and the kind of false information that could have deadly consequences. But it’s also a moment that reveals the real danger Americans are in right now. We shouldn’t be at this juncture. Tech companies should not be, and cannot be, our last bulwark against the spread of deception, distortion, bigotry and incendiary political discord.
And yet, with a Republican Party that refuses to police itself, a right-wing media apparatus that is more propaganda than news or journalism and a stubborn pro-Trump base willing to believe and parrot anything the former president says, American democracy – and truth itself – are in peril. That’s an illness that tech companies like Twitter can only seek to contain; it’s not a disease they can cure.
Greene’s Covid comments were so flatly wrong it’s incredible that anyone trusts her with the basics of governance, but welcome to today’s science-denying and fact-illiterate GOP. She tweeted – against all evidence – that Covid isn’t dangerous for people who aren’t obese and who are under 65. That is dangerously wrong: just ask the hundreds of thousands of non-obese people under 65 worldwide who have been seriously sickened by the virus – or the relatives of those who’ve died.
It is true that the risk of dying of Covid increases with age. But “elevated risk” is not the same as “only at risk.”
This isn’t the first time that Greene has used her platform to spread lies and conspiracies. She has indicated that she believes the QAnon conspiracy, a bizarre far-right lie that Democrats make up a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles – a claim so outrageous and easily disproven that it would be funny if so many people didn’t believe it (and if they weren’t showing up to pizza places toting guns, or winning seats in Congress).
Earlier this year, Greene took to Twitter to claim that there was widespread election fraud in 2020. Twitter suspended her for spreading election misinformation. In response, she complained that “Conservative Americans shouldn’t be afraid to speak their mind. They shouldn’t have to fear being cancelled by American corporations where they work, do business, and use services,” she said. “They shouldn’t be scared into submission by Socialists who want to end their way of life.”
She had also compared Covid-related masking and other protective measures to Nazism.
Though House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has called out some of her more egregious remarks, the GOP has never bothered to penalize Greene for her lies and bigoted comments in any lasting way. Why would they? Their leader, still playing president in Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster, is making many of the same claims. Trump also insists the election was stolen – and his party has used those lies to try to limit the rights of voters to cast ballots.
And when it comes to Covid, Trump has long been the denier-in-chief, downplaying the disease’s risks – even after he contracted it. Twitter’s most striking moment in recent memory came when they removed Trump from their platform permanently after the January 6 insurrection.
Social media companies increasingly police online speech, determining – vastly imperfectly – what is and is not acceptable in the public square. There are always going to be liars, charlatans, racists, ignorant people and people whose grasp on reality is tenuous as best. Social media companies have to decide what they will allow users to post to their platforms, and whatever lines they draw will by definition not exclude every bad thing.
What’s stunning about this moment, though, is that so much of the troubling misinformation isn’t coming from fringe conspiracy theorists or random yahoos, but members in good standing of one of two of America’s major parties. There may not be an easy way to keep all of the bad actors off of Twitter, but there should surely already be a mechanism in place to keep the reality-challenged out of elected office.
That would require the Republican Party to want their fringe members out of office, though. And it seems that as the fringes overtake the party itself, there’s less and less pushback. And since the fringes joined forces long ago with Fox News to spawn a robust ecosystem of other far-right reality-challenged media, conservative voters don’t seem to want to return to reason or even honesty – Greene not only won her election, she also raised an astonishing $3.2 million in just three months.
Twitter is indeed the last wall of decency right now. And given how paper-thin it is, that’s no comfort at all.