As I See It: Sunshine Or Oxygen?
February 22, 2021 Victor Rozek
There is an intense debate within the print and electronic media about the future of the 1st Amendment. At core is the question: At what point does free speech become antithetical to a free society? And what, if anything, should be done about it?
The answers to these questions call for great nuance and even greater caution. Is it even possible to fine-tune one of the foundational principles of our Democracy, while simultaneously preserving it? When does enthusiasm become incitement? What’s true and what’s false? What constitutes ignorance versus willful manipulation? What’s the dividing line between news and propaganda? And who decides?
Although any proposed limits on speech should be considered with upmost care, recent events, propelled by the amplifying power of computer technology and social media in particular, have made the discussion necessary.
In print media the problem is often framed as the tension between sunshine and oxygen. On the one hand, publishing unpopular, violent, or hateful content shines a disinfecting light on it. It alerts readers to troubling trends in public thought and discourse. But on the other, too much publicity simply gives those ideas oxygen, helps them spread, breathes life into them on a scale not otherwise available. The recent storming of the capitol has forced print and social media platforms to reconsider just how much oxygen they want to provide to people who would gladly see their CEOs hung and our form of government usurped.
Banishment from assorted social media platforms appears to have a quieting, if not curative, effect. Kicking conspiracy spreaders such as Alex Jones off social media has greatly reduced the breadth of his influence. And, certainly, the nation was spared a great deal of post-election vitriol by simply denying Twitter access to a single user. Politico called it “Twitter’s priceless gift to Biden.”
The Washington Post surveyed over 100 tech experts and an overwhelming number (93 percent) “said social media companies made the right decision to suspend former president Donald Trump’s accounts following the Capitol violence.” Many, however, thought it was too little too late, and that the move was both politically and financially calculated – appeasing the incoming administration and a Congress likely to consider placing legislative limits on technology companies.
Even Mark Zuckerberg, who for years has been reluctant to reign in some of his more egregious Facebook users, recently told investors during a quarterly earnings call that: “One of the top pieces of feedback that we are hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.” Well, to a degree they already do.
Zuckerberg’s historic reluctance to be the final arbiter of truth is both wise and understandable. Having said that, his is a privately owned public forum and as such is entitled to enforce reasonable community standards. As it haltingly does. But short of outright banishment, is it viable to expect social media providers to police billions of users and determine the viability of their individual posts? Algorithms can only do so much. And one thing they don’t do well at all is judge intention.
The result of corralling hateful or violent content is that it becomes more concentrated, finding refuge in its own kind. And, as with QAnon, apparently a good many people want to feel as if they’re getting secret, insider information, and belong to a community where no idea, however farfetched and bizarre is dismissed out of hand.
Heady stuff to be conscripted into a war against Satan-worshiping pedophiles and cannibals. But how did we get to the point where some folks believe Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks are among the cabal of baby eaters? Technology, as the spreader of infectious thought viruses, is the popular villain. And it certainly plays a part. But while technology may amplify some of the worst aspects of human nature, it has no power to change them.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung provided a plausible alternate explanation nearly a century ago. Jung theorized that people collectively foster delusions in order to protect what he called their “shadow” – the parts of ourselves we cannot, or refuse to, see. In the shadow lurk negative qualities like greed, selfishness, anger, fear, and feelings of inferiority. Collectively, they may include denial of the impacts of slavery or the existence of systemic discrimination.
When we deny the shadow qualities hiding within us, we project them onto others. In Jung’s words, “They become an inexplicable source of disturbance which we finally assume must exist somewhere outside ourselves. The resultant projection carries a dangerous situation in that the disturbing effects are now attributed to a wicked will outside ourselves, which is naturally not to be found anywhere but with our neighbor de l’autre côté de la rivière (on the other side of the river.) This leads to collective delusions, incidents, revolutions, war — in a word, to destructive mass psychoses.”
Indeed, what we’re seeing appears to be exactly that – a form of mass psychoses, where imaginary threats are projected onto a whole class of people across the aisle, if not across the river.
Then there’s the Heaven’s Gate problem. On March 26, 1997, deputies in San Diego found the bodies of 39 cult members who killed themselves in prelude to being plucked up by a UFO that would whisk them away to what they believed was a higher level of consciousness. They packed their bags, laid down on cots, and ingested a mixture of Phenobarbital and applesauce, washing it down with vodka in preparation for a rendezvous with an extraterrestrial spaceship hidden in the tail of the comet Hale-Bopp. And, presumably, so they wouldn’t be confused with other cosmic travelers, they wore armbands reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”
You really can’t make this stuff up.
The mind is infinitely malleable. Whether it’s a belief that the earth is flat, or that the elite are lizard people, or that Bill Gates is putting microchips in vaccines, or that a spaceship is trailing Hale-Bopp and if you just kill yourself you, too, can reach uncharted realms of higher consciousness; the human mind will believe absolutely anything. And since belief drives behavior, the crazier the belief, the more unhinged the behavior.
The frightening part of free speech isn’t the speech, or the technology that spreads it; it’s the listener.