Filing public comments does not mean you are setting the narrative….

Twenty years ago, while serving on the staff of a local government consumer service regulatory agency, the director at the time called me into his office to discuss a consumer survey the agency was crafting.  He said to me, “Alton, we are putting together a survey that will have an impact on our future careers.  The consumers do not know what to think. We are going to make them think what we think.”

He shared with me a regulatory reality that through his words he was able to yank forward from my mental backburner.  I was shocked at the brazenness but in no way shocked by its truth.  As a consumer or a trader for that matter, if you expect to have any impact on the decision making of a policy maker, you will have to be more aggressive in your actions.  Voting or writing comments on a proposed rulemaking won’t get you very far in terms of impact.

As a communications tool, public comments serve as a barometer or temperature gauge for an elected official.  They may at best incorporate into the announcements that accompany their rulings some of the energy they glean from public comments, but a policy maker’s decision on a rule has already been made before your shouting is heard. 

Regulatory agencies are mostly reactionary and a significant portion of the rules they make are in reaction to an event or to the needs of the industry they regulate.  Industry takes a 24/7 interest in the actions of government and participate in active narrative making through direct lobbying and comments in the media.  They leverage these tools and advantages every day.

But even industry’s influence has its limits.  Industry exists to do the bidding of government.  The government grants industry charters and licenses to serve a public convenience and necessity.  We tend to think “public convenience and necessity” as meaning doing beautiful things for society.  This is not necessarily the case.

Providing services that make society look and feel better are tactics that support government’s primary goal: the validation of its existence and expansion. This is the box that industry is in and its attempts to influence government via lobbying are merely ways of giving itself a little more elbow room. 

In the end, industry works for government, carrying out government’s philosophy, narrative, policies, and laws.

Allowing public comments is merely a tactic that nurtures the façade of democracy.  By allowing the public to file comments, government provides a release valve for the public through which to vent.  It is a small upfront price to head off the potential loss of political power. 

In my years serving on the staffs of two regulatory agencies and as a board member of another, I can say that public comments never swayed any recommendations or decisions that I made.  If you want to sway a decision maker’s thinking, you will have to learn the political pressure points and lobby to the decision maker’s interests.  

Alton Drew

9 May 2022

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Securing the new Twitter to spread political narrative …

Today, the board of Twitter, Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) accepted a bid from Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla, Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) to purchase the social media platform for a reported $44 billion.  The two competing political narratives emerging in the aftermath of the purchase are, from the right, that free speech will now return to the nation’s “public square; and from the left, that one man, particularly Elon Musk, should not have so much control over the social medium. 

For example, according to Yahoo News!, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, reportedly lamented that the purchase is “dangerous for democracy.”  She hinted that big tech companies should be held accountable by stronger rules.  Other senators such as Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, are concerned that a Musk-run Twitter would reactivate former president Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

Mr Trump put a sock in the assertion that he would return to posting content on the platform, stating that he was going to stay focused on his new social platform, Truth Social.

I find criticisms of Musk’s ownership a bit disingenuous, especially inside the Washington, DC beltway.  Jeff Bezos, another billionaire, dipped his toe into the media space when he purchased The Washington Post back in 2013. Unlike Mr Musk who apparently faced a hesitant Twitter board, company employees, and left media backlash, Mr Bezos had the blessing of The Post former owner, Katherine Graham, who believed Mr Bezos’ internet savvy was crucial to The Post’s survival.

At first, I thought Mr Musk’s intent for the purchase was neither here or there, but on further reflection having some insights into the new owner’s vision could guide how members of the political class approach Twitter as a medium for messaging.  The political class has two options.

Under the first option, the political class could go on a regulation rampage.  Mr Musk has already taken a preemptive measure by planning to take the company private, thus avoiding unnecessary regulatory scrutiny.  Private or not, the political class could pursue yanking protections from liability currently afforded social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Act. 

The Act excuses social media platforms like Twitter from the liabilities brought on from the content posted by its users.  If Twitter plays the role of a publisher or editor, it would lose the liability protection.  However, under the law, Twitter is allowed to take editorial action against content considered lewd, lascivious, obscene, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.

If the political class decides that Twitter is a publisher, Twitter could find itself doing exactly what Musk wants to avoid: restricting free speech for the sake of avoiding liability.

Under the second option, the political class could focus on its continuous use of Twitter as a communications channel to its constituents.  For example, most members of Congress and the Executive branch maintain Twitter accounts.  Federal, state, and local government agencies also use the platform to share information. 

Adding to Mr Musk’s vision for a freer public square versus creating the cognitive dissonance associated with using the platform while trying to regulate it to death may provide the political class with better political optics.  The political class primary role is maintaining the image of an open society, distinguishing American society from an increasingly autocratic world.  The political class is supposed to keep its hand on the narrative that influences the electorate to follow public policy. 

By whittling down a medium that the public uses to express itself, the political class runs the chance of looking autocratic itself and hindering the spread of its own narrative.

Alton Drew

25 April 2022

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