As I See It: Speech On Steroids
November 11, 2019 Victor Rozek
When Guttenberg first started cranking out Bibles, the religious authorities who dominated life and discourse in the 15th century were cautiously optimistic. Not only could it save monks years of lugubrious work copying and illustrating the volume, but they assumed this new technology would be used solely to propagate a Medieval version of approved speech.
But of course that didn’t last long.
Since its Feudal inception, communication technology and free speech have always had a turbulent and tenuous relationship. The easier it became to disseminate information, the more efficient the spread of heretical, seditious, and unpopular ideas. And the more draconian the blowback.
Soon after printing became commercial, Protestant reformer Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake, in part, for the publication of Patrick’s Places, which advocated Lutheran interpretations of scriptural doctrine.
The practice continues today. Salman Rushdie was fatwad. Anna Politkovskaya dared to write a book critical of Vladimir Putin. She managed to survive nine attempts on her life, but not the tenth. The men arrested for her murder claimed they were simply following orders.
As history shows, the ability to influence the masses spawns powerful antibodies; notably attempts by offended parties to kill threatening ideas, by killing those who hold them.
Removing restraints on speech is why the First Amendment, America’s codified embrace of the dictum: “I disagree with what you’re saying but will defend to the death your right to say it,” is both courageous and enlightened.
But, speech is contextual (you can’t, for example, yell “fire” in a crowded theater), and it is doubtful the framers could have anticipated the corrosive impact of unregulated social media platforms on freedom of speech. Before technology made possible the global spread of calculated lies, fanciful conspiracy theories, and fabricated propaganda, the worst abuses of speech were largely confined to taverns and mimeographed newsletters with empty but important sounding names.
Regardless, there is a radical difference between an individual voicing an opinion – however deliberately false or harmful – and having the ability to amplify that opinion over global networks.
As an unintended consequence of its own success, social media has become a platform for hatred, incitement to violence, and disinformation – not to mention election tampering. The question now befuddling Congress and annoying tech companies is: what if anything should we do about it? If one of the functions of government is to protect its citizens against force and fraud, does not the deliberate and prolonged spread of disinformation fall under the heading of fraud?
Which brings us to Facebook.
Facebook is the blank slate on which human experience is scribbled. From the sick to the sublime, the insipid to the inspirational, the hateful to the healing, it’s all there. And for Mark Zuckerberg, hosting it has been wildly profitable. But, as an accelerated means of communication, Facebook has become problematic to the very democracy that protects it.
At least that’s the contention of many observers who believe social media has been weaponized, and that Facebook was used to skew both the Brexit vote and the 2016 election by allowing its site to be the venue for knowingly false and incendiary information. And further, that the propaganda was individualized, based on personal data gathered and sold by Facebook.
Zuckerberg, for his part, is wrapping himself in the first amendment. “While I certainly worry about the erosion of truth,” he said, “I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100 percent true.”
Good point. I certainly wouldn’t want an organization like Breitbart, whose founder described it as a platform for the white nationalist alt-right, deciding what’s true and newsworthy. But just when you think that rational people would prefer not to team with neo-Nazis, Facebook decides to partner with Breitbart, among others, in its new news feed scheme. That decision seems particularly problematic given recent testimony by FBI Director Christopher Wray before a House Homeland Security meeting. Wray noted that domestic terrorists have committed more fatal attacks than international terrorists in the United States in recent years, and that “terrorism today moves at the speed of social media.”
Not to worry. Zuckerberg argues that individual citizens will do their own research to determine what is true and what isn’t. Oh sure, and maybe teenagers will give up their cell phones, and polar ice will stop melting. We are nothing if not lazy consumers of digital information, and while that doesn’t mean we have to be led by the hand to the altar of truth, it certainly helps if we’re not deliberately lied to.
Undeniably, Facebook has the means to influence elections and shape national debate by allowing deceits and fabrications to infect political ads. In fact, Zuckerberg claims he once considered banning political advertising altogether, but then had the epiphany that banning them would favor incumbents and hurt up-and-coming challengers who might not otherwise have mainstream media appeal.
In fairness, Facebook has at least taken steps to minimize foreign involvement in our elections. As recently as October of this year, it disabled a network of Russian-based accounts that were posting pro-Trump and ant-Biden propaganda. Paradoxically, if the same propaganda originated domestically, and was couched as a political ad, Zuckerberg apparently would have no problem hosting it.
So, if you believe Zuckerberg, Facebook is championing the First Amendment, and aiding political underdogs. If you believe his detractors, Facebook is promoting the spread of misinformation and choosing profit over protecting democracy.
One thing is certain: Democracy in the digital age is as difficult to protect as privacy in the age of surveillance.
The question of who controls the information commons may ultimately prove unanswerable. Google, Facebook, no one, everyone. The sea of information in which we all swim is composed of billions of drops of data from millions of sources. Controlling it all is fanciful. Besides, the crazies have learned to build their own networks and, on social media, anonymous algorithms feed them, and the rest of us, our preferred information diet based on past digestive preferences.
Clearly, however, something has to be done. Pushing back on the most egregious abuses of free speech is not denying speech; it is an acknowledgement that manipulation by deceit in the name of freedom will not be tolerated. As Zuckerberg’s employees reminded him in an open letter, “Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.”
The First Amendment is suffering from some of the same ills plaguing the Second Amendment: both were established in vastly different times and contexts and both now need reasonable controls to mitigate proven disastrous consequences. In the case of free speech, that means not only ensuring the rights of the speaker, but the rights of listeners as well.