Won’t somebody please think of the Constitutional children? By which I mean the Amendments, and especially the 1st one.
Free speech is under attack, both in theory and in practice. And sadly, the dissatisfaction comes from both sides of the political spectrum.
On the right, according to the latest Ipsos poll:
Some of the limits of public support for freedom of the press are made stark with a quarter of Americans (26%) saying they agree “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” including a plurality of Republicans (43%).
On the left, meanwhile, in just the most current instance, Alex Jones’ Infowars has been simultaneously kicked off most major social platforms over some unspecified violations of their terms of service. Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy was just one of many who cheered on this corporate ideological cleansing, tweeting “Infowars is the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart. These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it.”
Most people would have an opinion about which one of these two trends is more dangerous. The instinctive answer would be the first one – invoking the power of the state to silence voices you don’t like is a totality different matter to a private company refusing to provide somebody with a forum for their views. It is a different matter, certainly in theory, but I believe that in practice the instinctive answer is wrong.
This is why: at least in the United States, it doesn’t really matter how many people would like to see the President closing down CNN over “fake news” (however disconcerting it is that a large number of people think this would be a good idea), because the President – or the Congress – doesn’t have that power and cannot have that power. It would clearly conflict with the 1st Amendment and be struck down by, I suspect, every court in the land all the way up to the Supreme Court. Unless the 1st Amendment is repealed, which will never happen, the government of the United States will not have the power to censor the speech they don’t like or disagree with. I think that’s a wonderful thing, not just because I grew up in a country where the opposite was the case.
So what about the private sector censorship of people like Alex Jones? At the outset, let me say that I don’t give a flying fark about Jones; I’ve never followed him, listened to him or watched him. For all I know he is indeed a nutjob. But is that a good reason for banishing him from the socials? It would be great to know exactly what justification there is for denying him service and also why a concerted action between Facebook, YouTube and Apple on the same day? (arguments that Jones is a nasty conspiracy monger who argued that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged don’t fly with me when YouTube is quite happy to keep hosting, for example, various versions of “Loose Change” documentary, which argues in essence that it was the American government and not al-Qaeda that murdered 3000 people in New York and Washington). In any case, Jones is just one example of many recent instances of various non-left and anti-left individuals, groups and shows getting kicked off platforms, being censored or shadow-banned.
Many people would say: well, Facebook and Twitter are private companies and they can decide who they want to have as customers (if only wedding cake bakers have had it so nice and straight-forward), so it’s not censorship when the Infowars of this world lose their YouTube account – they can still spout their nonsense/wisdom (depending on your point of view) elsewhere. This is true, and unlike some I don’t believe that internet companies are analogous to public utilities and as such should be subject to the relevant access and competition laws. Even though I believe that the socials have and should have a right to decide who they host, I still believe that their exercise of that right poses a much greater threat – and causes a much greater damage – to the health of democracy than the plurality of the GOP base longing for Trump to pull the plug on “the enemies of the people”.
This is, as I mentioned before, because the latter is only wishful thinking which has zero practical impact on the state of freedom of speech throughout the United States, while the former is becoming an all-pervasive reality. The important reason why it is so is because the internet industry to an even larger extent than the worlds of the media, entertainment and education, is dominated by people of the progressive bent who are hostile to other, opposing ideas. They have not only the inclination but the power to exclude any voice they don’t like, and thanks to their combined near monopoly of the public forum, that exclusion can reduce somebody’s capacity to be heard to almost zero.
More than a year ago, I wrote about how our societies have democratised censorship. Even in the countries where free speech does not enjoy nearly as much protection as in the United States – in Australia, for instance – governments and their instrumentalities don’t often impinge on their citizens’ speech. It’s actually the other citizens, united in online outrage mobs, who lead pressure and boycotts which result in people being punished for their opinions and therefore often de facto silenced in the future. Another element of that democratisation, of course, is outsourcing censorship to private companies that provide so much of the infrastructure for the public discourse, including the media and the internet companies.
So while the left is wringing their hands over Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and the right base’s apparent appetite for official censorship, it is the actions of the left in the private sphere, through the institutions and businesses they control, that is actually resulting in real life negative consequences for the freedom of expression. And it’s all perfectly legal and, I add, should remain so (for the sake of completeness, the Congressional left also occasionally expresses desires for speech restrictions, just as there are also right-wing outrage mobs, but these are exceptions rather than the rule). But this is why I have zero sympathy for the grandees of the media and the progressive intelligencia (by I repeat myself) who bemoan the “hostile climate” created by the right. A hostile climate hasn’t stopped or restricted anyone from expressing their left-wing and anti-right views. The left’s crusade against amorphous concepts like hate or offensive speech, on the other hand, carried through the private and public institutions over which they exercise a near monopoly hold, is resulting in the increased ghettoisation of “incorrect” thought and expression.
P.S. John Heyward has a similar take on the state of play:
Blogs shattered the Old Media monopoly during the 2004 election. Social media became an instrument to restore the power of the guild. As websites grew dependent on a few big social platforms for clicks, a leash that could tame the seemingly uncontrollable blogs was forged.Some on the Left wanted to do this with crude government censorship, but that always runs into 1st Amendment problems, and it’s a power they could lose in elections. Guild power is immune to elections. It is above the will of the people. It tells the people what they think.When you ask a lefty, “Why do you want to establish government censorship powers that could one day fall into the hands of a Donald Trump?” you’re asking a question many asked themselves before 2016, and all have asked themselves since.Unelected guilds and mob actions give the Left control over speech without fear of losing elections or running into the 1st Amendment. They also confer the power to define terms, which is how government power can be bent to the Left even when it loses elections.