The Digital Is Political

Putting community back into communication requires the checks and balances of republics.

“Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” Elon Musk declared in his bid for Twitter, as if this shallow assertion were self-evident. What is more evident is that the “absolute free speech” embraced by robust libertarians like the Tesla entrepreneur is a key driver of dysfunctional democracy.

For libertarians, freedom of speech is, above all, about the autonomy of the atomized individual. But democracy is fundamentally about how individuals relate to each other in community through the institutions of self-government. And where there are interpersonal relations, there are ethics. As the philosopher Onora O’Neill rightly argues, the truth content and verified trustworthiness of information and sources are equally important in the ethics of communication as freedom to speak.

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