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20 January 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:26am

What Jean-Jacques Rousseau can teach us about Twitter

When a corporate will manages to masquerade as a general will, a society marked by entrenched inequality will find itself oppressed from within.

By Boris Litvin

“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proclaimed last October in a series of tweets anticipating the platform’s ban on political advertising. Since big tech firms often overlook their exacerbation of social and political inequality, Dorsey’s proclamation is significant. Yet President Trump’s recent use of Twitter to undermine news reports on his impeachment investigation and to condemn those testifying against him exemplifies the feeble and ineffective nature of Twitter’s new priorities.

In fact, a recent New York Times exposé suggests that the Trump administration’s capacity to assemble counter-narratives and attack adversaries rests specifically on its embrace of Twitter – a platform where the billionaire president’s “unvarnished writing, poor punctuation and increasing profanity” are said to achieve bite-sized performances of everyman “authenticity”.

It is therefore curious that Dorsey singles out political advertising on a platform unique for its facilitation of presidential communication. More than a misjudgment of priorities, this focus indicates a deeper confusion about Twitter’s place in the relationship between political speech and power.

The undue “reach” of political messaging concerns not just advertising but the outsized audiences Twitter grants to those in power under the guise of equality and familiarity. And in order to understand the tension between Twitter-reach and equality it is worth turning to a political thinker who was preoccupied with the subtleties of popular communication: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“Our service,” Dorsey remarked in an earlier testimony before the US Congress, “has enabled millions of people around the globe to engage in local, national, and global conversations on a wide range of issues of civic importance.” In fact, he stressed that “we must ensure all voices can be heard”.

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Dorsey’s aspiration reveals a Rousseauian sensibility. In his “Letter to D’Alembert,” Rousseau railed against the theatre because spectators found themselves detached from the depictions on stage –a detachment he took to mark the general passivity of peoples ruled by monarchies. Rousseau contrasted such passivity with a republican demand to “let the spectators become… actors themselves” – that is, to become something like Twitter’s content creators.

Rousseau was especially attuned to the role of new media in undoing entrenched hierarchies between actors and spectators. From his depiction of unusual characters through the emerging genre of the novel to his public circulation of heartfelt letters, Rousseau tried to establish a sort of collective familiarity among those participating in new conversations. These efforts should be recognisable to those who celebrate Twitter’s claim to democratise speech.

The ability to break from traditional forms of communication to start a new sort of conversation is crucial for Rousseau’s chief political innovation: his concept of the “general will”. Unlike the aggregation of self-interested opinions in, say, a public opinion poll, the general will institutes a reciprocal relationship between people as private individuals and as equal citizens who can actively become a “solitary whole”. As Rousseau argues, it is only this transformation from a group of individuals to a solitary whole that grants a collective body a sovereign capacity to create its own laws.

In contrast to political communities made up of passive spectators, this vision draws on a newfound ability to start a democratised conversation through which its members can recognise themselves as “a people”.

Rousseau’s conception of the general will, however, excludes one key actor from this conversation: the executive branch of the state or what he calls “government”. What distinguishes the government is its utilisation of the coercive apparatus of the state to enforce laws. Unlike the people whose general will establishes a claim to law-making, the government is rather defined by its use of force.

Of course, any republican government worth its salt must enforce the general will. Yet the executive cannot deliberate with the people. It cannot participate in the creation of the people’s will, just as I cannot claim to participate in an “equal” conversation with an armed interlocutor, no matter how “unvarnished” or authentic that interlocutor’s speech may appear.

In fact, the “content” produced by executive power always carries with it the force of one who commands – a distinction that cannot, by definition, capture the generality of a general will. Rousseau therefore develops an account of a “corporate will” that belongs to government magistrates and must be kept subservient to the general will, lest it becomes an oppressor of the sovereign people. Hence, Rousseau’s provocative conclusion that executive power is nullified whenever the people assemble.

To be sure, Rousseau’s celebration of all-encompassing mass assembly finds few adequate correlates in large, heterogeneous societies like the United States. But his anxiety over the tension between the general will and the corporate will is relevant for our context.

By providing Trump with a seemingly unmediated capacity to masquerade as a mere participant in its democratised conversation, Twitter has enabled his presidency to confound the general and corporate categories Rousseau sought to keep apart. In doing so, the “Twitter presidency” has not simply duped some audiences into believing that Trump is an everyman. It has also weaponised the participatory form of communication that enabled Dorsey’s platform to present itself as a “service” for the people.

What happens when a corporate will manages to masquerade as a general will? Rousseau offers readers a glimpse into this problem in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In this work, a society marked by entrenched inequality increasingly finds itself “oppressed from within”. Specifically, certain magistrates begin to exploit social institutions designed to unite the people, instead promoting “mutual hatred” within these institutions by inciting prejudices and suspicions among different social groups. Rousseau holds that this exemplifies a strategy meant to weaken the people’s very capacity for social unity, thereby paving the way for despotic power.

Much like the Twitter presidency, despotism fosters a perverse sense of equality and familiarity that leaves the people detached from the levers of power “with no law but the will of their master”. In these contexts, a false sense of mob superiority comes to replace popular empowerment. One can all but hear Rousseau’s despot calling those who attempt to shed light on the limited sources of his legitimacy “the enemy of the people” – targeting them to shore up his own support. Yet no amount of such targeting can transform the despot’s spectators into actors able to embark on a truly collective and autonomous project. No matter how popular, a despot’s will cannot make a general will – it can only masquerade.

Ultimately, Twitter’s attempt to reduce the influence of money in political messaging is commendable. However, it is self-defeating if we fail to address the underlying threats posed to equality and democracy when Twitter audiences are “reached” by those in power. Dorsey’s platform has certainly achieved a profound equalisation of public communication. But let us not forget that some speakers are more equal than others.

Boris Litvin teaches at Stetson University. He works primarily on the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.

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