Social Media vs Freedom of Speech

Hate speech and misinformation on social media are real issues. However, these issues are caused by the structure and mechanics of the social media platforms, which express the business models and philosophy of companies operating them (Google YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter).

Freedom of speech allows anyone to say anything, but no one is required to listen. Before social media, people usually spoke to specific audiences that had agreed to listen to them. A reporter or radio host spoke to the people who bought the newspaper or tuned in to the radio station. A preacher spoke to people who went to his church or house of worship. Members of a social club chose to speak and listen to each other. People spoke freely in the company of their family, friends, or other important relationships. As an exception, a village idiot could yell on top of his lungs in public, but nobody cared.

People avoided offending or threatening their neighbors and colleagues because they empathized with them, didn’t want to lose their business or to get into a conflict. The media used to respect its audience in order to keep them subscribing or watching (until recently, when media revenues became more dependent on Google and international advertising associations than on readers and viewers). Hate speech mattered less because its targets could distance themselves from such speech and its consequences by moving elsewhere, geographically or socially.

When the Constitution was written, it was understood that things said in one church could be offensive in another.  For this reason, the First Amendment combined freedom of speech and religion. People of different beliefs attended different churches and lived in relative peace with each other. Places of worship were among the earliest examples of “speech spaces”. Pubs, social clubs, newspapers etc. also served as spaces for non-religious speech.

There are many dimensions to what we call “speech”. One dimension is the topic of speech (like art, politics, religion, cars, sciences etc.) Another dimension is the specific views held on each topic. In politics, there are conservatives, liberals, Communists, Nazis etc. All of them have their own publications. Then there is the quality dimension: academic literature used to be at the top, intellectual periodicals (The Atlantic, National Review) on the next level, then the highbrow newspapers (the NYT and WaPo), followed by popular ones like USA Today, and the yellow press was at the bottom. The geographical dimension was represented by local papers. Another dimension is the type of literature – professional literature, ethnically oriented publications, fiction etc. Each publication is a separate speech space within this huge multidimensional realm. Everyone could find suitable publications, although the mainstream was acceptable to the most.

Notice that the existence of separate speech spaces doesn’t mean social isolation or division – most individuals are simultaneously engaged with multiple spaces, and occasionally visit many more (like when a reader of the Mother Jones picks in a store Guns & Ammo). Also, the spaces interact with each other. Their own audiences and surrounding public keep the spaces socially accountable, protecting against hate speech and misinformation.

The existence of such separate and independent speech spaces is a prerequisite for any intellectual advancement and the expansion of knowledge. A school of thought is a type of speech space in academia. Without different schools of thought some humanities and sciences would become a homogeneous mess. Prominent magazines, like The National Review, used to be the voices of social movements & ideologies. They held prestige like that of valuable brands. They were recognizable and trusted, although in different ways by their followers and opponents. They protected their brand value by the high quality of their output, being respectful to others and factually accurate.

Social media, led by Twitter, has smashed the natural barriers between speech spaces, thus destroying the spaces themselves. Even the dimensions of speech are eliminated on social media. Twitter literally places billions of people on the head of a pin. Everybody is in contact or potentially in contact with everybody else, across the globe.

Twitter’s favorite philosophical analogy is a town square. Even if that worked 2500 years ago in Athens, having less than 30 thousand citizens, our society has developed much better public debate mechanisms. Carefully disorganized communication among millions of people can only serve to keep users confused, outraged, and glued to their feeds.

The best analogy for understanding the social dynamics on Twitter is a prison, or even a single prison cell, where all Twitter users are locked. Unable to create separate speech spaces, the users are forced to fight for just about anything. This results in a Darwinian selection among them, assisted by shadow bans and de-platforming. Political prisoners have it the worst – read Solzhenitsyn Gulag Archipelago. In prison-like conditions, the most primitive ideas, primal instincts, and identity politics rule.

None of the real-world inhibitions for hate speech and misinformation exists on Twitter. There is no escape for its targets and potential victims on and even off social media – people targeted by incitement on social media frequently suffer physical persecution, as Rohingya in Myanmar.

Having created this volatile situation, Google YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook elected to regulate speech as a totalitarian government (yes, ONE government). The effect was predictable – they went much further than (probably) initially intended and suppressed non-hateful conservative political speech over almost the entire spectrum of the US political debate.

There are financial incentives to keep the structure of social media networks just the way they are. The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (Metcalf’s law) – the number of potential connections between them. Basically, the greater number of people interacting with each other in the common space, the greater the value of the social network. Thus, the platforms are optimized to discourage users from creating private spaces that would decrease the number of those potential connections.

Social media censors are correct when they say that a society needs recognizable trusted authorities. We are not born with a natural capacity to distinguish truth from lies. Certain newspapers, encyclopedias, professional societies might serve as intellectual authorities on some subjects. But social media censors are dead wrong when they arrogate the power to decide who these trusted authorities are.

Social media is already more powerful than the rest of the media, and what happens on social media influences the national political media climate. There is a feedback loop, reminiscent of the French revolution. The more conservatives were eliminated from the National Assembly, the more it shifted to the left. As it shifted to the left, it eliminated more moderate voices, and so on.  Jacobin terror was feeding on itself. The same thing is happening to social media corporations. The calls to eliminate hate speech and disinformation intensify, just watch Sacha Baron Cohen. And there are always examples of real hate speech and disinformation.

The current crop of social media and freedom of speech cannot coexist. Only one of them is protected by the Constitution.

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