The Corner

Politics & Policy

Deplatforming on Social Media and Free Speech

(Aly Song/Reuters)

In last week’s G-File I tackled the issue of “deplatforming” on social media. I got a lot of heated and angry feedback from a lot of folks for it. While I don’t retract or regret anything I wrote, I do regret something I didn’t write.

I think there are legitimate areas for concern about the way Google, Facebook, and Twitter have a double standard about what voices they want to silence. The recent effort by Google to deny the Claremont Institute the ability to advertise its gala was ridiculous. Facebook’s blocking of Prager University videos was absurd. And I’m glad Facebook apologized.

But the fact that they apologized points to the fact that while many of these platforms clearly have biases — often encoded in bad algorithms — points to the possibility that these behemoths aren’t actually conspiring to “silence” all conservatives. They’re just making boneheaded mistakes based in groupthink, bias, and ignorance.

The argument from many on my friends on the right about this issue often just boils down to argumentum ad slippery slopum. Social-media companies must allow every reprehensible figure out there to spew garbage because if we don’t they’ll come for us next. It’s not necessarily a ridiculous argument, allowing maximum freedom is one way to protect vital freedoms. This used to be the ACLU’s argument for allowing Nazis to march past Holocaust victims. It’s still the argument for Second Amendment defenders, who say any additional regulations are just an excuse to move the ball downfield toward gun bans and the like.

But the NRA’s argument always struck me as more empirically grounded than the old ACLU’s. We know that large swaths of gun-control proponents want to get to the Australian model — because they say so all the time.

I just don’t think efforts at censorship work the same way. Sometimes censoring A does not lead to censoring B or C or D, never mind Z. The slippery slope isn’t a hidden teleological or dialectical force, it’s a function of practical political combat. And that means meaningful distinctions can be made. Conservatives and libertarians (as do many liberals) often fall into the habit of arguing that every expansion of government power yields an equal reduction in liberty. It can work like that, in some specific areas it obviously does. But in others it simply doesn’t. For instance, the Federal Government has grown massively in size and scope over the last century and half. In that time, slavery was ended, Jim Crow laws repealed, women granted the vote and countless industries deregulated or de-monopolized.

Similarly, First Amendment freedoms have greatly expanded over the last 50  — never mind 200 — years. Obscenity laws have all but vanished in the name of free expression (prompting the famous line from Irving Kristol: “The liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie — but only if she is paid the minimum wage.”).

But the expansion of free-expression rights in one sphere didn’t protect free-speech rights in other spheres. Indeed, efforts to regulate political speech often increased even as restrictions on peripheral speech decreased. We got a lot more freedom of expression for strippers and flag burners but got a lot less for political parties.

In other words, there is no mystical transitive property that guarantees that when the censoring of some speech leads to a cancer-like spread of more censorship. Germany bans Nazi propagandizing, this hasn’t led to a Teutonic Fahrenheit 451. In America we aggressively censor child pornography without triggering a slippery slope. I for one find the argument “First they came for the pedophiles free-speech rights, but I did nothing for I am not a fan of kiddie porn . . . ” to be utterly ridiculous.

One angry critic lectured me about how censorship based on “ideas” is always terrible regardless of the idea. That might be true when it comes to the government, it’s nonsense when it comes to the private sector. Rich Lowry has unilateral authority to “censor” anyone from the pages of National Review. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are far more capacious of what they will tolerate on their platforms, in part because they have a very different business model. But they still have a right to refuse service to people using their gizmos and microphones to spew stuff they don’t like. Apple has always banned porn from its platforms, porn freedoms have hardly been curtailed.

More to the point, people like Alex Jones and Laura Loomer aren’t trafficking in ideas so much as monetizable lies. Calling the Sandy Hook shooting a “false-flag operation” for clicks is grotesque. I am at a loss as to why I must man the parapets to defend their right to spread lies. The greatest of all defenses for any statement is truth. That’s true in philosophy and libel law alike. Now what constitutes the truth is often a debatable thing, which is why a wide tolerance for different opinions and ideas is desirable. Tolerance for bad ideas does not require support for deliberate lies. And even if you disagree with that, the argument that the solution to the problems with Facebook et al is to make government the de facto content editor strikes me as batty.

That said, I very much like David French’s argument for having social-media platforms adopt a policy rooted in First Amendment standards in making these decisions. I’m not sure I would agree with all of the results from such a policy, but it would be better than what we have now.

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