Amazon’s owner and the richest man in the world makes an appearance in one of the best documentaries of the year, The Dissident. Bezos and others in Big Tech have so much power we should feel lucky that some of them are using that power for good. But the funny thing is, power and good are often in the eyes of the beholder, which is why in America we must rely on the Constitution to keep us on the straight and narrow, not the whims of trillionaires who control and monitor every aspect of our lives.
That isn’t the overt message of The Dissident, but we in America have come dangerously close to violating the rights of American citizens via the industries to whom we’ve willingly handed over so much power. It seemingly happened overnight – the frog in the boiling water. Now that it is here, it is much too big for the ordinary citizen to tackle. It comes at the same time that journalism has become partisan and consumer-driven, the idea being “give the people what they want even if it bends the truth.”
That can become dangerous when the message is distorted. If the most powerful media empires are controlled by Big Tech, then they are insurmountable monopolies. The Dissident provides one stark example of this in both how the phones of Bezos and Jama Khashoggi were hacked, enabling their actions to be tracked, and also in how Twitter provided a massive platform for the enemies of Bezos and Khashoggi to try to sway public opinion about both of them. With Bezos it hardly mattered. There is no more powerful person in the world than this man. But Khashoggi speaking out would cost him his life once the Saudi government led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hacked his phone and found he was working with activists.
Khashoggi wrote for The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos. That’s why and how the two men are connected in this film. Bezos is shown at the end of the movie attending Khashoggi’s funeral, but it’s another tech giant that is front and center in the film, Twitter. While Jack Dorsey thinks it’s okay, and most Democrats agree, to simply ban people off of Twitter based on the idea that, if a small group of white supremacists were part of the group that busted down the doors of the Capitol to try to overthrow the American government, that meant that all of the hundreds of the thousands of Trump supporters protesting in DC that day (which is their Constitutional right) were also 1) white supremacists and 2) insurrectionists. This has given Big Tech all it needs to enact radical purges to satisfy the fear and anger that thrums through our country in the wake of it. But make no mistake, it is overreach of the magnitude we should all fear. You won’t find many people on the left or in journalism taking a stand against it, but you will find plenty of people in other countries, like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Putin’s enemy Alexei Navalny, speaking out against it as grotesque and dangerous censorship.
Why I continually criticize the left and not the right, even though much of this exists on the right too, is that the left controls culture and sets the standards for journalism, free expression, free speech, and everything else. That’s because we used to be the side that fought for civil liberties, but we do not appear to value that as much in the post-Trump era.
The film doesn’t go into all of this, but I bring it up because Twitter is the vehicle used to wage the war of free speech in Saudi Arabia at the time of Khashoggi’s assassination. The Crown Prince has an army of trolls controlling what people think in Saudi Arabia – control Twitter, control the message, control the people. Twitter had a hands-off approach, clearly, and did nothing about that or many of the ways it’s been used to cause actual war and suppress dissent, among other things. All they care about, it seems, is their bread and butter and ticket to the elite world of movie stars and Democratic politicians in the United States. For them, they’ll bend over backwards. I know, this is hard to parse, what with Jack Dorsey seemingly not the kind of person who would care about prestige. But with enormous wealth and power you still need to be accepted into the world of elites because they control the press, Hollywood, and everything else. If you care about your image, then you have to care about how they see you.
I personally believe banning the President of the United States was a violation of the rights of the Americans who supported him and voted for him, regardless of whether he “broke the rules.”
I’ll pause here to offer up an explanation of this. Some would say that “Trump incited a riot so he gets kicked off.” But it’s more complicated than that. You merely have to switch the power base to understand why it’s problematic. First, imagine that Twitter was dominated by conservatives or Trump supporters and that ideology controlled the land. Now imagine the pockets of violence that erupted all summer in Portland and Kenosha and various other places was incited by leaders who not only didn’t stand up to it (nor did they nor any other major outlets on the left) even acknowledge they were happening but they encouraged them. Any tweet that encouraged the protests could be seen as inciting violence by the same Rubik. Trump was leading a Constitutionally protected protest to challenge the vote (stupid, lame and a lie but that’s what he was doing). His supporters believed they were doing that. Most of them had been not only non-violent on January 6 but bragged about being nonviolent and pro-police. Deciding that constitutionally protected protest was tantamount to inciting violence would then apply across the board to the left as well as the right. No one is going to be banning Kamala Harris or Chuck Schumer or Andrew Yang from Twitter for inspiring and supporting protests, though they did just purge many thought to be “Antifa” from their platform now.
Trump deserved a day in court before rendering guilt over whether he incited the violence or not. He is getting that day now but Twitter ought to have waited, in my opinion to ban him permanently. This is just how I stand. I grew up in a different time when it was the left that fought for civil liberties. Hitler used the Reichstag fire to shut down the influence of the Communist party and allow for total dominance of voice. People do things when they’re scared that often violate the rights of many. We need cooler heads to prevail than the tech bros who have way too much power over the information stream and, as it turns out, government.
I don’t think it makes the country a better place with his voice absent because those who supported him were the underclass. They are people with no power and no wealth and no ticket to the world of the elites. Now they are not only being called white supremacists and hunted like animals by guys like Don Winslow, but they have no voice by design. That made the events on January 6 a bit like the Reichstag Fire in Germany which handed unlimited power over to Hitler because no one would object in such a time of fear.
You might disagree with that. Most people do. But it is my honest opinion because in the end I believe strongly in free speech, and I am 100% opposed to Big Tech taking liberties with that speech. I could not help but think about that while watching The Dissident. It is such a slippery slope. Of course, we’re not murdering journalists here in the US for speaking out against the government, but we’re having them deplatformed, fired, shunned – removing both their chance to state their own case publicly, on Twitter, or make a living. Worse, we have all agreed that dehumanizing whole groups of people is just fine as long we believe we are fighting on the right side. But it’s always wrong no matter how justified it might seem. Social media has a way of distorting the truth and pitting us against each other in tribes and has made dehumanization an acceptable practice.
Additionally, none other than The Washington Post was just called out by Reason magazine for burying an unflattering story about Vice President Kamala Harris:
As part of an online series rolled out before President Joe Biden’s and Harris’ inauguration, “we repurposed and updated some of our strong biographical pieces about both political figures,” Molly Gannon Conway, the Post‘s communications manager, told Reason via email on Thursday. “The profile of Maya Harris was updated with new reporting, as noted online, using the existing URL. The original story remains available in print.”
As with all things Big Tech and the left these days, they find ways to justify something that is ethically questionable. You can read about that story here – there is no clear answer about why they made this call or who ordered it. But this is The Washington Post. This is the paper that once puts its own survival in jeopardy by exposing Watergate. We expect them, at the very least, to understand the difference and not to comply with the left’s ongoing mission to erase anything that might be deemed problematic or offensive. The truth still matters, friends, even if it’s unflattering.
In the Dissident, a group of activists on the ground in other countries mobilized to build a Twitter army to defeat the Crown Prince’s own Twitter army which pushed out messages that made it seem like actual citizens were on the side of the government. The only avenue they had was Twitter because the government controlled everything else. Eventually, they find a way to mobilize enough people to become the trending topic for one day. When the government hackers found out that Khashoggi was working with them he was murdered.
The film goes into brutal detail of Khashoggi’s death which is difficult to watch but nonetheless important. THAT is what living under a fascist dictator actually looks like. Fascism is about controlling the message and forcing everyone to obey and agree to live under a singular ideology. It isn’t enough just to be someone that sells America First. They also have to take direct action to silence dissent, to ban books, to dehumanize and erase anyone who isn’t fully on board or who says things the government finds threatening. It is always something to fight against. America must always be the leader when it comes to defending free speech – even if it isn’t a technical violation of it. We should always be afraid of people who silent voices, even if we find those voices offensive. We must stand up for it because we are the leaders of it. A Democracy is supposed to allow for dissent. Not shut it down.
Director Bryan Fogel was last seen winning Best Documentary for Icarus, an incredible film about the power of another dictator, Vladimir Putin. He seems to have no fear diving into the belly of the beast.
The Dissident is not just one of the best documentaries of the year, it is the most important, along with The Social Dilemma, when it comes to confronting the enormous power we’ve given over to a small handful of people.