Free Speech is one of the cornerstones of a free people. It is at the heart of the Enlightenment ideals that are the philosophical underpinnings of our Constitutional Republic (note, we are NOT a democracy, thank goodness). On the Federal level, it is enshrined in the First Amendment, which prevents the Federal Government (not the States) from engaging in prior restraint of speech. Citizens have the right, if not the duty, to speak their mind.
This does not mean freedom from consequences. All Citizens have the right, if not the duty, to read/listen/view, research, and make up their own minds on the topic. They also can choose how and if they want to do business with a person or persons on the basis of their public speech.
They also have the right, and again the duty, to ridicule, mock, and otherwise dissect what is being said by others. The concept is that there is a marketplace of ideas where anything and everything is out there for consideration. That ideas, not matter how wild (or vile) can be put out for discussion in the form of rational discourse. Within this, facts can be challenged, countervailing ideas proposed, and — with an informed electorate — general consensus reached on any and every topic. Within that, there was a fond hope that ridiculous ideas would be dealt with in an informed manner. This, as noted above, included mockery, ridicule, and other means of expressing condemnation of the truly ridiculous in a rational manner.
A free and open press was considered a key to this in an age of printed materials. That said, it was also expected that such would take place in public discourse, be it in speeches or in tavern discussions. It is worth noting that the free and open press accepted that many of what became newspapers (evolving from broadsheets) were not unbiased, but were often party organs with an agenda. The idea that the media was unbiased and only reported the news is a fairly modern conceit that has little basis in fact. In fact, the modern media is a guild and guards itself accordingly.
The fact is that most major newspapers are the evolved “children” of various party organs. Competing newspapers were the product of the various political parties of the time. That competition was considered essential to the marketplace of ideas, in that it allowed competing opinions (at least of the major parties) to be put before the Citizens of the Republic for discourse. Said discourse was hoped to result in an informed electorate making informed decisions on political topics of the day. That said, emotionalism was and is a heavy part of coverage, discourse, and resulting elections.
I’ve written before on the history of journalism and this topic. I will further state that the concept of an unbiased press is one I support, but have seldom seen in the newsroom. Today’s media is in fact heavily biased, and within the modern newsroom one does NOT find a diversity of political thought — in fact, I would say it is shunned in fact no matter the official declarations. That is one reason I do not (any longer) refer to myself as a journalist, and is a reason I had my press credentials when doing embeds in Iraq say “Blogger” rather than media, reporter, or similar term.
It is also worth noting that every repressive regime makes extensive efforts to control the media and speech. Only approved content is allowed out, or desired to get out. The more repressive the regime, the more speech is controlled, to the point of informers turning in those who make any utterance not fully in line with the official line, no matter where or when it is uttered.
The concept of free speech goes well beyond the First Amendment of the Constitution. It was, until recently, an unspoken part of American life. The public, even beyond Citizens, looked askance if not in condemnation, of anyone who openly called for limiting free speech. Those making such calls were rightly considered demagogs, if not despots. Or, at least, despots in the making. It was also known that such people hated being mocked, which led to much mockery of them and their position. In America, nothing and no one was considered above such.
It has been noted that one can tell who controls a society, and how open and free it truly is, by who and what can not be mocked or ridiculed. There is a great deal of truth to that.
Today, the concept of free speech is not just under attack, there are many active efforts to destroy it. There are politicians who are openly calling for it to be eliminated on the basis of “hate speech” or other labels. Those all boil down to “any speech we don’t like.”
For decades, modern media has been a gatekeeper to widespread free speech. On some levels, refusing to cover fringe elements has been a good one, in that it limited the ability of such people or groups to have a wider audience. Note that this was not the government openly limiting free speech, but an exercise of private companies to choose what they allowed on their platforms — which is their right. However, when any industry becomes a bastion of one particular ideology that also becomes an attack on free speech, and artificially limits the marketplace of ideas.
The advance of communications technology has always served to break, at least temporarily, such a stranglehold. New forms of media have consistently lowered the cost of entry into the field. No such advance has had the impact of the internet, which dropped the cost of entry to pennies as opposed to major capital investment. Hence, the efforts of repressive regimes everywhere to limit or control the internet within their borders (and beyond where they could) as they are adamantly opposed to their people both being exposed to contrary ideas (and facts) and discussing topics not approved.
Which leads us to today. As is noted here, the internet spawned blogs. Blogs allowed anyone with a few dollars to have a platform to put forth their ideas unfettered into the marketplace of ideas. In its best form, it allowed specialists in an area or field to write about that field in a form not possible in the major media (see previous writings about the death of specialized journalism). If you wanted to learn about the latest in high-energy physics, the military, or any other topic, and there were blogs devoted to those topics either by subject matter experts or by those who were interested in those topics. The gatekeepers were bypassed, and they did not like it.
The attacks were immediate, and at first were limited to ridicule such as bloggers being people living in their parent’s basement writing in their pajamas. It grew to organized (and well-funded efforts) to spam the comments to popular blogs with trolls. That real trolls jumped in on such was simply icing on the cake to those desiring to shut down discourse and the wide dissemination of ideas. It also found ways to use regulations, pressure, and other tactics to sidestep (in the US) the Constitutional protections for free speech (see above reference).
New social media was initially embraced by the bloggers as a means of reaching even wider audiences. Rather than depending on those interested in finding on a given topic finding them through a search, platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc., provided a way to increase reach and readership. In fact, most platforms encouraged it as it helped them to grow financially, which was helpful since one or more started with no real business plan (looking at you, Facebook).
However, that relationship changed. The new social media platforms recognized the revenue potential of making blogs, bloggers, and others pay for dissemination through ads. This led to the practice of throttling posts with links. Want your readers/friends/whatever to see what you wrote? Well, buy an ad and we will let a select number more see your post, pay more and more will see it. The net result was that the readership of the social media outlets (and revenues) grew over time as such policies grew. The readership of blogs and other outlets declined.
This was not unnoticed by those desiring to control free speech. It was also noticed that those behind some of the major social media platforms were of a fairly uniform political belief system, one that mirrors strongly those of modern media. The result is what we face today. A good read on this is here.
One of the hardest things to do is defend speech that is unpopular, either because it goes against prevailing beliefs or is simply vile. Yet, such defense has been an essential effort to preserve freedom, and the Republic. One can find many instances of the idea that ‘I hate what you are saying, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Doing so is not popular, and has consequences.
Yes, the social media companies have the right to decide what goes on their platforms, just as I decide who gets to comment here and to delete/not approve any given comment. It is not that I desire an echo chamber; rather, I will not allow someone to use the bathroom in my comments by posting vile, loathsome, or false information here. My house, my rules.
Yet, when the social media companies act in concert to “deplatform” someone with whom they disagree, and work with politicians on matters of regulation of speech (suppression of speech by any name) and there is a problem. In fact, there is a huge problem that needs remedy.
The best remedy is for Citizens (and individuals anywhere) to cease using those platforms, depriving them of revenue. Let the marketplace decide. If that marketplace is rigged, however, the choices get more difficult. Such rigging is at the heart of what is going on, and the open collusion of said companies with politicians to make them the only game in town.
Personally, I consider Alex Jones and InfoWars (no link from me) to be vile and loathsome on the order of any ethnic-purist or socialist. According to someone I know, who stepped between him and a person he and his were physically attacking, he hits like a girl. I’m very much in agreement with this post in regards him, and what is going on.
I do NOT like having to defend his right to free speech. That said, however, to fail to rise to his defense brings up the old saw about ‘I didn’t say anything when they came for X’ which is not just a slipper slope, rather one already being on the slide.
For me, I’ve already dropped out of Twitter (several years ago) and no longer recommend it as a platform for most clients. I’ve cut back on my use of Facebook, and hope to cut back even further in the days ahead. I’m also starting to post more here, as I think the blogs may well see a resurgence and are a much needed alternative to current social media. Will I reach as many people without them? Time will tell, but initially the answer is no. It is, however, the best I can do.
If you drop a single rock in a stream, the water flows around it. If you drop a lot of rocks, you can — at least initially — dam the stream. Thing is, water works to find a way around such dams, even the best built/most heavily funded works. The public has had a taste of the river that is the free-flow of ideas, and is not likely to truly like efforts to dam it no matter the cause. Even with regulations and such, people find ways around the dams — just look at China and elsewhere for examples. The most you can do is force them underground, and there things happen that dam builders seldom like. I would also note that sending them underground also brings about things that are equally as bad as the initial repression, or even worse for a free society.
The deplatforming of Jones and InfoWars is a bad idea. It is one more step in taking the new civil war within the US hot. Taking it hot will not go well, for individuals, groups, and the Republic. That it is desired strongly by those who want to make it hot (idiots, no matter which of the sides they are on) makes it more essential to protest.
The public has had a taste of the river. You can’t stop the signal, it will find ways around. Those ways undermine essential structures, societal or otherwise. Then again, that’s what far too many want. It will not end well.