Free speech in the digital age

I finally broke down and wrote a cancel-culture-adjacent piece. It originally appeared at Merion West, an online magazine. Since this essay contains themes I’ve been mulling over but have struggled to articulate for a while, I thought I’d reprint the piece here, with some commentary in the footnotes. Enjoy!


If I had to pick one thing America does better than any other nation, I’d have to go with free speech. The American commitment to free speech is legendary, codified by the First Amendment, which guarantees all Americans the right to worship, peacefully assemble, and otherwise express themselves without fear of government censorship.

As legal protections for freedom of expression go, the First Amendment remains the gold standard worldwide. We often take this for granted, forgetting that most people don’t live under the same conditions. Hold the American stance on freedom of speech in contrast with that of Iran or Saudi Arabia, where blasphemy is punishable by death, or China, where one-to-three million members of an ethno-religious sect are packed into concentration camps for crimes as spurious as abstaining from alcohol.*

If picking on theocracies and dictatorships strikes you as low-hanging fruit, recall that Europeans also live with less freedom of expression. A U.K. man was arrested and fined for posting a YouTube video that showed his girlfriend’s pug performing Nazi salutes, for example. By comparison, the American Civil Liberties Union has used the First Amendment to defend the rights of neo-Nazis and civil rights protestors alike to assemble.

Our commitment to the rights of others to express themselves, even if they hold heinous beliefs, is something uniquely American, perhaps the finest piece of our cultural heritage. Unfortunately, it’s a commitment we seem to be turning our backs on—and the First Amendment is often used as a moral license to do so.

The First Amendment guarantees one freedom from government censorship; it doesn’t establish the positive right to speech. This is as it should be, as anything more would require the compulsion of others to either hear or facilitate one’s speech. However, this allows people to take a narrow view of freedom of speech as being merely freedom from government censorship. We might call this the “showing you the door” strain of free speech thought. Such a view, while legally coherent, ignores that free speech has a cultural component as well—one that needs constant maintenance if it’s not to fall into disrepair.

That component might be described as a willingness to err on the side of permissiveness when it comes to public discourse—or perhaps an understanding that we generally tend to benefit from living in a culture where people can push boundaries without intolerable social and economic risk.** Its bedrock values are charity, humility, and tolerance. 

When I speak of a threat to free speech culture, I’m talking about the newly enabled impulse to defenestrate and defame people, often for trivial transgressions, sometimes years after the offense—“cancel culture,” if you must. It is distinct from free speech culture in that it doesn’t seek to confront opposing views but rather to erase them, often in ways that are financially or personally ruinous for the offending party. It’s the self-righteous, vindictive justice of the mob.

Because the internet

Anyone observer of humanity can tell you this is not new behavior. On the contrary, it’s been more the rule than the exception. But it does seem exacerbated and facilitated by modern life, especially the internet.

As more of life moved online, it became easily searchable, permanent, and largely public. This migration—the result of social encouragement to live in full view of your friends, casual acquaintances, and advertisers—has spawned a panopticonic social archive that can easily be turned against you.*** These are conditions unique to life in the 21st Century that many adults, let alone children, seem understandably ill-adept at navigating.

When paired with the rapid mutation of norms (also aided by the internet) surrounding acceptable speech and the mob mentality incentivized by social media and click-hungry outlets, this creates an environment ripe for reflexive, post-hoc defamation, to which even—or more accurately, especially—powerful liberal institutions (the very same tasked with guarding free inquiry) are showing little resistance

In such a hostile environment, the obvious choice becomes to abstain from speech that not only is controversial but also that which might someday be controversial. (The exception being those who are financially immune to cancelation and can thus be afforded public free thought.) This is clearly at odds with a culture of free speech, in which ideas can be freely debated, and people can change their minds over time. 

We’re already seeing the consequences: authors pulling their own books from publication for excruciatingly trivial offenses; professionals being fired for sharing objective research that supports unhappy findings. But the future consequences will be unseen: the important medical studies that aren’t conducted; the bold art that isn’t created; the policy failures that can’t be named, much less halted. From this vantage point, the future looks bleak, the province of the anodyne and ineffectual.

Censorship has been outsourced to private actors

Much like the social surveillance system under which we live (voluntarily, it must be said), the modern thought police regime is not a product of the state. Censorship has been outsourced to private companies and zealous volunteers, who are themselves often exercising their free speech rights in the course of policing others’ speech. From a legal standpoint, this is of course distinct from government censorship, and therefore not a First Amendment issue. No one has a right to a subreddit or a Twitter handle or a New York Times op-ed.

Yet it would be a mistake to say that these companies and individuals don’t or can’t pose a threat to free speech in the broader, cultural sense. To do so, you would have to ignore the market power of the relatively few actors that control the channels of speech in the modern era. The collapse of local media and the consolidation of firms within the industry, for example, have endowed the remaining actors with the power to filter the coverage of events and viewpoints that millions of Americans are exposed to. Do you trust them not to use it?

Over half of Americans get their news through Facebook, which is known to have manipulated users’ feeds to alter their emotions. Some 80% of search engine traffic flows through Google, home to famously opinionated, activist employees. About a quarter of journalists turn to Twitter—the use of which has been shown by at least one study to affect journalists’s judgement of newsworthiness—as their primary news source. The case of social media platforms and search engines is particularly illustrating: while they are private actors that users engage with of their own volition, network effects are built into their business models, meaning once established, they’re not as vulnerable to competition as other businesses and products are.

These companies are well within their legal rights to create their own policies and remove content that violates them, to algorithmically promote or suppress content on their properties, or to flag content as misinformation if they deem it so. But to deny that in doing so they might chill, stifle, or otherwise impact free expression is fanciful.

There are no easy fixes

Part of the irony of this problem is that addressing it in the most straightforward way (through policy or regulation) would actually represent a huge step in the wrong direction. Do I worry about the market power of companies that control the modern channels of speech? Yes, especially given the political power dynamics at play in many of our most powerful institutions. Do I think media polarization is dangerous and bad? You bet. But maintaining the independence of private actors, and thus the core of the First Amendment, is more important than the pursuit of an ephemeral unbiased public sphere.

That’s fine, because this isn’t a policy problem. It’s a cultural problem, and it requires a cultural solution: a revival of free speech culture and the virtues upon which it rests. We need to check our instincts to banish things we don’t like, and we need to voice our skepticism of those who over rely on the power of censorship.**** (It would probably also be a good idea for individuals to rethink how they use the internet.) 

I know this is a lot to ask, especially under the conditions of the digital age. But I have hope. Cultural free speech is a core American value and a key component of life in a pluralistic society. If anyone is going to defend it, it will be us.

Notes

* When I started writing this piece (about a week ago), Uyghur oppression was the most relevant example of Chinese human rights violation. By the time it was published, that had changed.

** This is one of those American ideals that has certainly never been implemented or enjoyed uniformly. As sociology professor Rod Graham points out, for a long time, you could risk losing your job and destroying your personal life by coming out as gay, for example. So while the tone of this piece is somewhat pessimistic about the state of modern free speech, I think it’s important to note that in a lot of ways, things have improved.

***  I should have also brought up that sometimes, as in many of the “Karen” videos going around, this social surveillance system is quite literally weaponized. There are incentives in place to do so—mainly the promise of money and virality for the poster.

****  There’s always going to be an Overton window; I don’t mean to suggest it could be any other way. That’s just part of living in a society.

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