A Different Kind of Identity Politics

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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

Ten years ago, one of Twitter’s power users had a complaint—and a suggestion.

There was too much trolling on the platform, he observed. (Or too much trolling of him, at least.) He knew how to make it stop.

Donald J. Trump, civility policeman.

Ten years later, one of his challengers for the Republican presidential nomination had a complaint—and a suggestion.

Her proposal annoyed right-wing populists, a group not normally given to principled defenses of liberal values. “Nice try, Nikki,” Turning Point USA poohbah Charlie Kirk responded. “Anonymous speech is a core part of free speech—which the founders would know, since many of them (including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison) wrote anonymously.”

Charlie Kirk is correct. How often do we get to say that?

Ron DeSantis is also correct. He condemned Haley’s proposal as “dangerous and unconstitutional,” a sound assessment in light of legal precedent. In 1958, the thick of the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama couldn’t compel the NAACP to disclose the names of its members without violating their right to freedom of association. The court knew why the segregationist powers-that-be wanted to make that information public and what sort of retribution might result.

Dangerous and unconstitutional, like the man said. If Alabama couldn’t do it then, it’s hard to see why a Nikki Haley administration could do it now.

The grassroots backlash to her comments grew quickly, forcing Haley to retreat. In an interview on Wednesday she abandoned the “civility” rationale for her policy and embraced the national security dimension. “I don’t mind anonymous American people having free speech,” she graciously allowed, reiterating her belief that online discourse would improve if anonymity were prohibited. “What I don’t like is anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.”

We’ve arrived at a weird point in the campaign where Nikki Haley, the great classical-liberal hope, sounds authoritarian while Ron DeSantis, the great authoritarian hope, sounds classically liberal.

I did not expect this issue, of all issues, to become a hot topic in the epic battle of presidential also-rans among the 30 percent of the party that’s moved on from Trump. But here we are.

They’re both right, of course.

Take it from a guy who blogged anonymously for 16 years: Anonymous speech is making American politics worse on balance. It doesn’t have to—I’d like to think my own work made it ever so marginally better. But the sort of person who seems most eager to protect their anonymity online these days sounds less like “Publius” declaiming on the virtues of limited government than the sort of Jew-hating chud you might find in Elon Musk’s “likes” column.

If said chud had to tweet under his own name, suddenly accountable for the things he says, the chud quotient in his posts would collapse overnight. There’s a reason why online interactions are so much nastier than those in person: Fear of reprisal is a powerful deterrent to provocation.

A discourse without anonymity would be a more civil discourse.

It would also be a discourse in which people on the margins of their community, with good reason to hide their identities, would be scared to participate. Maybe you’re young and gay and live in a very conservative town; how eager will you be to seek friendship with other gay people online if your identity is required by law to follow you? Or maybe you’re a college student who sides strongly with Israel in its conflict with Hamas. How keen will you be to share that view under your own name knowing that the “from the river to the sea” droogs are right down the hallway in your dorm?

This newsletter frequently concerns itself with Donald Trump’s fascist ambitions. Public criticism of the God-Emperor in his second term will be less robust if each critic legally must be outed.

A discourse without anonymity would be a less honest discourse.

If we could grant anonymity to the virtuous while withholding the privilege from the vicious, perhaps that’d be worth doing to encourage good ideas while discouraging bad ones. But we can’t—not constitutionally and not intellectually. Applying different speech rules to people based on the content of their speech is as blatant as violations of the First Amendment get. And distinguishing vicious actors from virtuous ones is rarely as easy as distinguishing the goblin with “1488” in his username from the Orthodox Jew he’s harassing online.

I suppose President Haley could ditch her plan to strip users of their anonymity via legal compulsion and instead simply “ask” social media platforms to start verifying users’ identities. There’s no First Amendment problem with a private entity setting its own terms of use, of course—unless, perhaps, they’re doing so under pressure from the White House, as would be the case here. (That’s a live issue in the courts at the moment.) All businesses fear making an enemy of the government, which means government “requests” of them are never quite requests.

Even if social media platforms were game to require users to post under their own names, how would they enforce the policy? Jack Shafer wonders:

Haley’s demand that social media companies verify usernames poses several questions. Would this be on the honor system? If so, then it would be useless as it would be easy to give a fake name or, as bars can already tell you, a fake ID. Would it be linked to driver’s licenses or passports? If so, you’d have to verify 1) that the driver’s license or passport is valid but also 2) that it was submitted by its owner. That would prove costly and time-consuming for both users and social media outlets and maybe even bankrupt them. If the site survived, would they turn their backs on international users, who might be too expensive to verify? Does Haley expect social media sites to use facial ID or other biometric data, like fingerprints, which pose monumental privacy problems?

He also notes another problem in Haley’s scheme to prevent foreigners from posting anonymously while letting Americans do so: How could someone prove they’re an American citizen without, er, identifying themselves?

Absent government coercion, de jure or otherwise, online platforms will always resist forcing users to post under their names because of the money they stand to lose from scaring off those who prefer to post anonymously. Look no further than Twitter, where Elon Musk reinvented the site’s verification process as a pay-to-play scheme for trolls eager to purchase the pitiful stature of a blue checkmark. If his troll army suddenly had to identify themselves publicly, Musk’s revenue stream would disintegrate. (He’s not a fan of Haley’s proposal, go figure.) His platform might go under. Others might too.

Anonymous speech is bad. It’s just a little less bad than the alternative.

So DeSantis is right and Haley is wrong. But how did they end up on opposite sides of this issue? And not just on opposite sides, but on the side opposite of the one you might have expected each to take?

Candidly, I don’t know what Nikki Haley was thinking by bringing this up.

It’s not like online anonymity is a burning topic in GOP circles about which she was required to take a position.

Stranger still, Haley has practiced strategic ambiguity to stay out of political trouble on other topics that truly are “burning” at the moment. Her approach to federal abortion restrictions has been to dodge the subject by pointing to the infeasibility of regulation. You can’t get anything done on abortion without 60 votes in the Senate, she’s said, and there won’t be 60 votes for restrictions anytime soon. So there’s no sense worrying about a hypothetical.

Yet there she was a few days ago, chattering about a hypothetical ban on anonymity online.

Does she believe that a bill to that effect would get 60 votes in the Senate? And, if it did, that it would survive a constitutional challenge in court? If so, that makes one of us.

The best I can do to explain why she’s taken a shine to this idea is that it’s an offshoot of her foreign policy views. It’s not the “civility” benefits of the policy that are driving her interest in it; that’s just a little bonus. She wants to ban anonymity online because she’s earnestly concerned about enemies like Russia and China using disinformation to manipulate domestic public opinion. Which, to be fair, isn’t a crazy thing to worry about with an election approaching—particularly as deepfake technology improves and as America’s most formidable rival happens to control a platform where one-third of young Americans regularly get their, ahem, “news.”

“Stop the Russian and Chinese bots by banning anonymity” is Haley’s way of signaling to undecided Republican voters that she’s the staunchest hawk left among the semi-serious candidates in the primary, a claim Ron DeSantis has been eager to undermine (at least with respect to China). She’s thinking of creative ways to stop the bad guys. You can trust her with national defense, she’s saying—something not every voter considering a woman for president will find it easy to do.

And since she’s pitching herself mainly to old-school conservatives, the fact that her policy would end up exposing anonymous post-liberal trolls to the light of day really might function as a little bonus. If you think populist boors online have too much influence over the GOP, you might regard requiring them to post under their own names as a useful way to get them to pipe down.

The thing about Haley’s strategy is that it seems kind of, well, stupid under the circumstances.

Consolidating the one-third of the party that prefers a more traditional Republican to Trump 3.0 would be a nice moral victory for her. And it looks increasingly doable. The catch is that she needs another one-fifth or so to actually win—and that one-fifth includes a lot of people who like the populist direction in which Trump has taken the party. A thoroughly conventional “establishment” candidate like her that’s trying to ingratiate herself to a pro-Trump cohort can do better, I suspect, than “Let’s force people with unconventional political views to out themselves so that they’re easier to doxx.”

Frankly, her view on this issue “codes” as left-wing. Both parties have developed grievances with Big Tech during the Trump era but of different natures: Republicans resent how liberals who dominate the industry ghettoize right-wing views whereas Democrats resent how lax the industry has been in policing for “disinformation,” foreign and domestic. True to cultural form, the right’s project in wanting greater political space for marginalized views is populist whereas the left’s wanting more aggressive marginalization of “dangerous” falsehoods is elitist.

So here’s Nikki Haley, Republican hopeful, floating a policy that would inevitably lead to more aggressive marginalization of users with fringy opinions.

One would think a candidate who’s been careful not to align herself with the left on other litmus tests, like whether Trump is an unfit lunatic who belongs in prison, would be similarly careful here. Not so.

No wonder Ron DeSantis and his team have strained this week to make her pay for it.

Contain your surprise when I tell you that I don’t believe DeSantis, Charlie Kirk, and the other dregs of the post-liberal right are acting out of principle in condemning Haley’s affront to free speech. They’re being opportunistic. They almost always are.

No elected official in the Republican Party has been more aggressive in targeting the speech of adversaries than DeSantis. His war with Disney began with an act of naked government retaliation to punish the company for having criticized the so-called “don’t say gay” bill he signed into law. The company is currently suing him for having violated its First Amendment rights.

DeSantis gets sued a lot on First Amendment grounds. By universities, for trying to limit how they can discuss race; by Palestinian student groups, for banning them over alleged material support for terrorism; by state prosecutors, for firing them after they claimed they won’t enforce abortion laws; by businesses that host drag shows, for barring children due to “lewdness.” This fall the Supreme Court will consider a Florida law that punishes social media companies for deplatforming political candidates. If he’d gotten his way, DeSantis also would have signed into law a bill reducing protections for the media against libel suits.

As for freedom of association, the right that protects online anonymity, DeSantis issued an order during the pandemic prohibiting private businesses from requiring proof of COVID vaccination by their patrons. The freedom of those entities to associate with clients of their choosing was infringed because the governor, in his bottomless cynicism, was looking for a way to pander to anti-vax populists ahead of his coming presidential run.

The point and promise of DeSantis’ candidacy to those who admire him is that he’s willing to push the envelope legally further than anyone else, Trump included, in how state power might be used to limit the rights of his base’s enemies. There’s no question that if Disney had praised his “don’t say gay” law instead of opposing it, he wouldn’t have thought to eliminate the special district that governs Disney World. In Florida, rights like free speech and free association are contingent upon retaining the political favor of the government and its supporters. Which is to say, they aren’t “rights” at all.

The reason this ludicrous hypocrite is wagging his finger at Nikki Haley over “dangerous” threats to free speech isn’t because he cares about rights in the abstract, it’s because posting anonymously is of special value to the authoritarian cranks he’s already won over and is hoping to win more of among Trump’s base. Anti-vaxxers, Putin apologists, gay-baiters, conspiracy theorists various and sundry: That’s the sort of person who has most to fear from a legal regime that requires social media users to take accountability for their views by posting under their names. And that’s the sort of person whom Ron DeSantis has bent over backwards to attract for the past two years.

His view of rights conforms precisely to his electoral interests. That’s what post-liberalism means.

And Haley is a useful foil for him on the subject, as taking the side of free speech here is an efficient way for him to impress both wings of the party he’s courting. It reminds populists that he sides with The People, not with Big Tech, in questions of online censorship. That “codes” correctly for a candidate running in a Republican primary.

But it also shows the traditionally conservative voters who have drifted away from him and toward Haley that he’s still capable of offering a principled-ish classically liberal view when it’s to his advantage to do so. He may not be a “normie” anymore but he can still sound like one, certainly more than Trump can. Perhaps that’ll lure those voters back as they consider whether he or Haley is more capable of uniting the party’s diverging factions.

If you want to get really cynical, you might wonder if DeSantis isn’t annoyed by Haley’s hand-wringing over foreign disinformation because he’s counting on that disinformation to be helpful to the Republican presidential nominee next year. (Unless that nominee is Haley, of course.) That’s probably too cynical: Like Haley herself, DeSantis wants to ban TikTok in the name of limiting Chinese influence over American culture, his way of flashing a little hawkishness to balance his dovishness toward Russia.

But would Charlie Kirk and other Trump-idolaters appreciate a thumb on the scale from abroad to help Real America prevail next fall? You tell me.

In the end, Occam’s razor likely explains why DeSantis was keen to pick a fight with Haley in this matter. She, not he, continues to look like the most electable candidate in the race. She’s picking up new donors with Tim Scott’s departure. And she will put DeSantis’ campaign on life support if she surges past him in the next round of Iowa polling. He has no choice but to train fire on her to protect his tenuous position as the very—very, very—distant second-place alternative to Trump. Which is exactly where he hoped he’d be on Thanksgiving when he launched his campaign in May, no doubt.

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