Now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter, which he claims to have done to promulgage legal free speech (i.e., speech permitted by the First Amendment), we see a lot of people suddenly finding reasons to oppose free speech. One reason that many people simply despise Elon Musk and will criticize anything he does.
But support for free speech all over America is waning for several reasons. First, because free speech—even that allowed by the Constitution—is said to permit “hate speech” and “offense”. My response to that is that one person’s free speech is another’s hate speech, and that “offense” is not an excuse for censorship. And who is going to parse the First Amendment so that it no longer allows “hate speech”?
Another reason is that the “hate speech” is said to “erase” the speech of minorities and promote white supremacy. But in the past years, since the death of George Floyd, I’ve seen a huge upwelling of speech, both public and on social media, by members of minority groups. What I see, and favor, is that they have a bigger megaphone, not a smaller one. Nobody has been “erased” or had their megaphone taken away.
Third, freedom of speech is said to promote “disinformation”—deliberate lies promulgated to further an agenda. Well, yes, it does that, but it’s been doing that for centuries, as pointed out by Jon Zobenica and Ben Schwarz in an excellent essay from the Free Voice called “Who Will Watch the Watchmen?”
Both Left and Right have engaged in disinformation, and, although the argument goes that social media magnifies it, that argument also was made against printing presses and yellow newspapers. Frankly, I am not much bothered by “disinformation”, as eventually the truth always comes out (because of free speech!); it’s not illegal except for false advertising; and, most important, who will decide what “disinformation” is? That is the point of Zobenica and Schwarz’s essay and of much writing and speecifying by Christopher Hitchens. Remember that the Hunter Biden laptop fracas was pushed out of the liberal press as “disinformation”, but turned out to have substance. Both Left and Right do this—remember Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” disinformation?
But now, according to Time Magazine, we have yet another reason to ban free speech: it’s a tool of white technocratic males (Musk, Zuckerberg) who are insensitive to the “nuances” of free speech and are pushing it so they can use their platforms to broadcast disinformation and suppress minorities.
This is a new combination of the “hate speech” and “disinformation” arguments, but with opprobrium towards white males tacked on. But this argument fares no better than the previous ones. Sure, any commercial platform need not abide by the First Amendment, which is about the government censoring speech, but I am pretty much a free speech hard-liner, and think that the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment (and its exceptions) should hold pretty much everywhere, including colleges and social media.
Time seems not to agree, though its op-ed is confusing and a bit incoherent. Click to read: I”ll give a few quotes:
Here’s the male-bashing:
“Freedom of speech” has become a paramount concern of the techno-moral universe. The issue has anchored nearly every digital media debate for the last two years, from the dustup over Joe Rogan at Spotify to vaccine misinformation on Facebook. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a major speech at Georgetown in 2019 about the importance of “free expression” and has consistently relied on the theme when explaining why Facebook has struggled to curb disinformation on the platform.
“It does seem to be a dominant obsession with the most elite, the most driven Elon Musks of the world,” says Fred Turner, professor of communication at Stanford University and author of several books about Silicon Valley culture, who argues that “free speech seems to be much more of an obsession among men.” Turner says the drive to harness and define the culture around online speech is related to “the entrepreneurial push: I did it in business, I did it in space, and now I’m going to do it in the world.”
And here’s the implicit accusation of racism in the “tech bros” favoring free speech:
Jason Goldman, who was on the founding team at Twitter and served on the company’s board from 2007 to 2010 before joining the Obama Administration, says the tech rhetoric around free speech has become an obsession of the mostly white, male members of the tech elite, who made their billions in the decades before a rapidly diversifying workforce changed the culture at many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.
They “would rather go back to the way things were,” Goldman says, “and are couching that in terms of ‘free speech’ or ‘we’re not going to allow politics to be part of the conversation.’”
The “going back to the way things were,” to me at least, implies the good old days when white men ruled the world. And so white supremacy becomes another motivation for pushing free speech. This is underscored when author Charlotte Alter argues this:
Tech titans often have a different understanding of speech than the rest of the world because most trained as engineers, not as writers or readers, and a lack of a humanities education might make them less attuned to the social and political nuances of speech.
“Tech culture is grounded in engineering culture, which imagines itself as apolitical,” says Turner. Engineers, he adds, often see the world in terms of problems and solutions, and in that context, speech becomes a series of data points that get circulated through a data system, rather than expressions of social or political ideas.
Again, this sounds like an accusation that the white tech-bros’ construal of free speech allows them to offend people more freely. Either that or they’re oblivious to “hate speech” and thus don’t oppose it.
Well, I can’t say that nobody has these motivations, but you have to be pretty much steeped in wokeism to argue that these are the reasons that people like Musk want more free speech. In fact, Alter argues that free speech is no longer what it used to be:
But “free speech” in the 21st century means something very different than it did in the 18th, when the Founders enshrined it in the Constitution. The right to say what you want without being imprisoned is not the same as the right to broadcast disinformation to millions of people on a corporate platform. This nuance seems to be lost on some techno-wizards who see any restriction as the enemy of innovation.
The question, though, is not one of “rights” but of “benefits”. And the benefits of First Amendment free speech devolve widely, not just in speech that the government can’t censor, but in speech that private colleges like mine can’t censor. This is why over 80 colleges, many of them private, have signed on to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression.
To oppose free speech because Elon Musk favors it is stupid; it’s not an argument at all. To oppose free speech because it causes offense or “hate speech” is misguided. And to oppose free speech because it could promote “disinformation” raises the unanswerable question “who will watch the watchmen?” (See Zobenica and Schwarz’s essay.)
Finally, to oppose free speech because it applies only to government censorship is to completely overlook the reasons why America wrote it into the constitution: largely because of Mill’s idea that it’s the best way to test your own arguments and find the truth. What other way is there?
Or do you want to go the censorship route? If so, and I suspect a few readers will, then tell us, please, who is going to monitor speech for “offense” and “disinformation”? Do you want the people at Twitter doing it, whose double standards about acceptable speech are well known?
Alter is confusing free speech values with the rationale for the First Amendment. For years, anti-free-speech figures have dismissed free speech objections to social media censorship by stressing that the First Amendment applies only to the government, not private companies. The distinction was always a dishonest effort to evade the implications of speech controls, whether implemented by the government or corporations.
The First Amendment was never the exclusive definition of free speech. Free speech is viewed by many of us as a human right; the First Amendment only deals with one source for limiting it. Free speech can be undermined by private corporations as well as government agencies. This threat is even greater when politicians openly use corporations to achieve indirectly what they cannot achieve directly.