Technology is undermining free speech, and we don’t know what to do about it. At issue are the global platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the disturbing propaganda, misinformation and lies propagated there.
The tendency, on the left as on the right, is towards censorship. It is a terrible solution, more toxic and damaging to the body politic than disease.
The left would like to shut down Fox Cable News and its leading commentator, Tucker Carlson. The right would like Twitter to be sold, presumably to Elon Musk, to stop blocking tweets from the right, including those of former President Donald Trump.
How our society and others deal with the downsides of social media – racial incitement, misinformation, lying, and views that are offensive to a minority, whether disabled or an ethnic group – is a work in progress. The instinct is to close them, to close them. The tool – that old monster solution – is censorship.
The first problem with censorship is that it must define what must be eradicated. Take hate speech. The British Parliament is grappling with a bill to limit it. Social networks seek to exclude it, and there are American laws against crimes which are inspired by it.
How do you define it, hate speech? When is it a fair comment? When is satire? When is truth mistaken for hate?
I say if you can untie that knot, go ahead and censor. But I also know that you can’t untie it without sacrificing free speech, violating the First Amendment, shutting down creativity and lame humor.
The censor is often as well dressed in moral clothes as in political clothes. Take Thomas Bowdler and his sister, Henrietta, who in 1807 published a redacted version of Shakespeare’s works. Henrietta did most of the work on the first 20 pieces, later Thomas completed all 36. They erased sex, profanity and double meaning. Thomas was an admired scholar, not a crackpot, though that may be today’s judgment.
Curiously, the Bowdlers are credited with increasing Shakespeare’s readership. People have reached the forbidden fruit; they always do.
Likewise, many novels would have avoided success had they not been banned from serial production, such as DH Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Moral censorship of films by the Hays Office, beginning in 1934, did not save audiences from moral turpitude. It just led to bad movies.
Censors often start with specific words; words, which can be argued to represent an offense to a group or social position. So specific words become demonized — whether it’s naming a sports team or a colloquial word for sex, the urge to censor them is strong.
Jokes, like those of the English about the Welsh or those of the Scots about the English, have become victims of a new sensibility, where political activists sell the idea that those being joked about are victims. The only casualty is lightness, in my opinion.
When you begin to descend this slope, there is no apparent end. Euphemisms trump plain language and we live in a society where using the wrong word can suggest that you are unfit to hold public office or teach. Areas related to ethnicity and sexual orientation are particularly tense.
Until the 1960s and the civil rights movement, newspapers de facto censored people of color: they ignored them – a particularly blatant form of censorship. At the Washington Daily News where I once worked, a now defunct but bustling evening newspaper in the nation’s capital, some of us once ransacked the library looking for pictures of black people. There were none. From its founding in 1927 until the civil rights movement took off, the paper simply hadn’t published news from this community in a city that had a burgeoning African-American population.
It was a collective censorship as pernicious as that which the two political extremes would now like to impose on speech.
Alas, censorship – banning someone else’s speech – is not going to solve the problem of the rights of those who are slandered, lied to or excluded from social media. In print and traditional broadcasting, defamation has been the last defense.
Libel laws are clearly inadequate and puny in the face of the enormity of social media, but they are a starting point. A new reality needs, and in time will get, new mechanisms to deal with it.
One of these mechanisms should not be censorship. It is still the primary tool of dictatorship but should be anathema in democracies. For example, whether Russian President Vladimir Putin could have invaded Ukraine had he not first censored Russian media is an open question.