Social Media, Fake News, and Free Speech

Free speech has come under attack on two fronts since Donald Trump was elected president. Many unhappy with his victory charge that Russia interfered in our election on his behalf by using social media like Facebook and Twitter, which should be held responsible for the content on their sites. Meanwhile, some political activists and politicians are calling for a revision of our free speech laws to prevent “hate” speech and “fake news” from polluting the public square. Everybody is complaining about false or biased reporting that is distracting and confusing voters with disinformation and appeals to unsavory emotions. One of the pillars of American exceptionalism, the right of citizens to speak freely, no matter how rough or hateful their words, seems to be tottering.

The revelations that Russian propaganda exploited social media to affect the outcome of the election has resulted in Twitter, Facebook, and Google executives getting hauled before Congress to answer questions about the parts their businesses may have played in supposed Russian electoral interference. According to the  testimony of these executives, Russian-sponsored Facebook ads reached 135 million American voters over 32 months, and the New York Times reports “more than 126 million users potentially saw inflammatory political ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency.” Many Congressmen from both parties demanded to know what social media companies will do to control the dissemination of questionable or hostile information.

Similarly, even before the violent demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, critics were demanding a revision of our First Amendment in order to make it resemble the laws in Europe that prohibit “hate speech” and speech that attempts to “spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance.” The “free marketplace of ideas,” critics argue, in the age of the internet is no longer adequate for sorting out “legitimate” speech from hateful propaganda that, if left unchecked, could lead to political tyranny, as happened in Germany under Nazism in the in the 1920s and ’30s. The safety of the larger political community should take precedence over the right of individual citizens to speak their minds.

An Ancient Understanding
Critics such as these, however, ignore the fundamental role that speech protections play in developing consensual governments in which power resides with the people. It is no accident that ancient Athens, the first constitutional government allowing widespread participation in governing, also invented the idea of free political speech. The link between political freedom and speech is obvious in the formula that opened the Athenian Assembly and that Euripides declared “the call of freedom”: “What man has good advice to give the city, /And wished to make it known?” Throughout Greek literature and history, the connection between free speech and freedom is ubiquitous. This link is made explicit in Sophocles’ adage “Free men have free tongues,” or the philosopher Democritus’ “Freedom of speech is the sign of freedom.”

The value of free speech for monitoring politicians and holding them accountable is also a constant theme in Greek political philosophy and has served as a cornerstone for the two millennia of subsequent political philosophy. Aristophanes in his sexually vulgar and slanderous plays, which depicted Athenian political leaders by name as traitors, perverts, and prostitutes, justified his comedies as checks on corrupt and power-hungry politicians. In his Acharnians, the Chorus advises the audience not to allow anyone to silence Aristophanes, “who will always fight for the cause of justice in his Comedies,” and promises that “his precepts will lead you to happiness” and “point you to the better way” by satirizing the leaders attempting to misguide the people and threaten their freedom.

The example of Aristophanes reminds us that the political purpose of free speech is more important than its power to insult or make uncomfortable its listeners, or to violate standards of decorum and manners. Especially when—like the Athenian audience or America today—the citizens comprise a wide variety of points of view, socio-economic classes, and levels of education, any attempt to censor speech because it is offensive or indecorous will compromise political freedom. That is why the Founders wrote the First Amendment, which recognizes the right to free speech as a natural right, and not one granted by government.

Another problem with these calls to restrict speech involves the inability to agree on the standards that would designate speech as objectionable or dangerous. What is “hateful” or “intolerant” to one person is not so to another, a consequence of subjective, even irrational standards. In a therapeutic age that prizes protecting people’s feelings, the only way to ensure no one’s feelings are hurt is to make the most sensitive the arbiters of what counts as offensive. Hence the proliferation of “speech codes” on college campuses, the policing of “microaggressions,” the limiting of free speech only to certain areas of campus, and the demands for “safe spaces.”

Tool of Tyrants
Likewise, sexual harassment law is vaguely written, often leaving what constitutes a “hostile and intimidating workplace,” for example, up to the overly sensitive, thin-skinned, or neurotic. As a consequence, in the public square, our schools, and in our workspaces, citizens are pressured into to practicing self-censorship to avoid giving offense and suffering possible legal sanctions.

Worse yet, standards often reflect political prejudices. Political correctness is the expression of identity politics, the predicating of personal identity on being a victim of historical oppression. Hence white, heterosexual, “cis-gendered,” Christian males, the epitome of the historical oppressor, are unprotected by the strictures of political correctness. Free speech protections are reserved only for those who qualify as victims of oppression according to historically dubious or ideologically slanted standards. On college campuses today, calls for revising the First Amendment often come from those on the multicultural left, who seek to bar conservative speakers, prevent them from coming to campus, or disrupt their speeches, often violently. As a result, the key institution of open political deliberation is compromised, threatening the freedom of all.

Most important, since ancient Greece the critics of democracy have always used the offensiveness of free speech as a tool to restrict the people’s right to use it. The argument is that the masses are poorly educated, fickle, and guided by their selfish passions. Therefore, giving the power of open deliberation to people who cannot transcend their intellectual or moral weaknesses is dangerous, for they will be vulnerable to manipulative demagogues.

During the presidential election, we heard a species of this argument from both sides of the aisle. They claimed that many of Trump’s supporters, as Hillary Clinton said frankly, are a “basket of deplorables. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic–you name it.” Republicans opposed to Trump were just as dismissive, if not as forthright as Clinton. The constant comparisons of Trump to fascist leaders of the 1930s by commentators like Bret Stephens and Robert Kagan implied his supporters were as gullible, selfish, and irrational as the voters in Germany and Italy who put Hitler and Mussolini into power.

The assumption behind this criticism is that the American people are not intelligent or educated enough to use free speech properly, and so will end up being misled by self-serving demagogues. Indeed, the current fears about “fake news” and social media often are accompanied by a similar denigration of the citizens.

A New York Times op-ed on the critics of social media accuses them of “scapegoating” the tech companies for our sins:Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.” Echoing critics of democracy going back to ancient Athens, the writer concludes, “The real crisis is Americans’ inability or unwillingness to sift fact from fiction.”

The New Censorship
No doubt the rise of cable television, talk-radio, the internet, and social media has increased astronomically the volume of information available to the people, much of it false or biased. But the problem of the people’s ability to distinguish the true and well-argued from the false and the badly argued has been around since Plato and other anti-democrats decried the ignorance and irrationalism of the people in similar terms. Without question, free speech has the potential to make mischief in an open society where all have a say. But what critics seem to forget is that free speech is also fundamental for holding elected officials accountable to the laws and the people, and protecting freedom from tyranny.

Moreover, any attempt to limit or censor speech or to control the flow of information compromises this function and runs other, more dangerous risks. Social media like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are already censoring political speech in direct and indirect ways. During last year’s election, critics accused Facebook of deleting from its “trending” list articles from conservative news sources, claims given credence by statements from Facebook executives criticizing Donald Trump and the revelation that editors, not algorithms, selected the titles promoted in its “Trending” feature.

Twitter and Facebook have censored posts by critics of Islam like Brother Rachid, while allowing harsh criticisms of other religions. PayPal, which many online sites use to collect online donations, banned Jihad Watch, another critic of jihad, because it had appeared on a so-called “hate list” compiled by the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists some conservative and Christian organizations as “hate groups.” PayPal backed off only after a widely reported public outcry.

Given the immense power and market dominance of social media businesses like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, compelling them to practice further censorship is dangerous. With subjectivity and political prejudices compromising the standards censors will use, it will be difficult to “guard the guardians” and make sure that standards are applied evenly. And since “hate speech” is often in the eye of the beholder, letting private corporations be the “eyes” controlling public speech makes it difficult to hold them accountable to the people. Controlling information has been one of the most important instruments for tyrants who seek to deny people their political freedom.

Finally, for all the dangers of unregulated information on the internet and social media, we are better off today with our many options and variety of voices. Our democracy has been strengthened by breaking the monopoly over political speech exercised in the decades after World War II, when three television networks and a few score national newspapers controlled information and decided what to talk about and how to talk about it. Today we have a true marketplace of ideas, in which any citizen can easily access multiple sources of information and opinions once available only to an elite with the time and leisure to seek them out.

In the end, free people are responsible for judging the quality of information and opinions upon which their political decisions are based, and for which they must be held accountable. Whether from good intentions or bad, trying to shape people’s opinions by excluding or censoring information diminishes political freedom and citizen autonomy, which has always been the aim of despotism hard or soft.

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About Bruce S. Thornton

Bruce S. Thornton is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His books include "Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization" and "Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama."

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