I used to think that all that was required for freedom of speech to flourish was the absence of restraint: legal restraints, certainly, but also the constraints of money and connections that had traditionally limited access to the public square. The coming of the internet, in the 1990s, and more particularly of social media a decade later, seemed to promise a golden age of free speech. No longer would freedom of the press, as the saying has it, be limited to those who own one. Now everyone had their own printing press. Everyone could say whatever they wanted to everyone. Surely goodness and mercy would follow us all the rest of our days.
The epistemic chaos that has engulfed our societies over the past few years has dispelled that illusion. A good part of the American population give every sign of having lost their minds, incapable of distinguishing reality from even the most hallucinatory fantasies – of which the preposterous lie that election officials across the United States conspired to flip millions of votes from one candidate to another is not even the most extreme example. That sort of mass delusion, I had thought, might be possible under repressive dictatorships, or in premodern societies, where information is tightly controlled and alternatives to the official line are few. It could not happen, surely, in an advanced democracy, with all of the latest communications technology at its disposal.
But of course it could. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it was inevitable that it would. To be sure, the rise of Donald Trump – with his unique talent for lying, without limit, without evidence and without shame – posed a particular challenge to the public’s capacity to separate fact from fiction. But the broader challenge was already in place, in the form of social media; Mr. Trump simply harnessed their potential to the fullest. It was, as it turns out, the very absence of those traditional constraints, the ones that social media “freed” us from, that did us in. Speech may be freer than ever before, but it is not yielding the sort of benefits, on balance, that might once have been expected.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work. Truth and falsehood contend together in the marketplace of ideas, with a rational and informed public separating the one from the other, much as consumers choose among competing products. This requires, among other things, time for people to absorb the details. It requires a common set of facts, as a benchmark against which to measure competing claims to represent reality. It requires some measure of good faith on the part of the contestants, and some respect for independent expertise on the part of the public.
Once, all this was at least theoretically possible, in a time when ideas spread more slowly, and when access to the public square was limited by certain gatekeepers: the traditional media, but also opinion leaders of various kinds. You could always print up a handbill yourself, of course, or shout at passersby on a street corner. But if you wanted to reach a mass audience, you had to accommodate yourself to some degree to the gatekeepers: people with stakes in the game and reputations to uphold. You had to persuade someone your views were worth publishing; they in turn had to persuade someone to distribute them, and so on. False or inflammatory or demented speech was not entirely suppressed, but neither was it amplified. The gatekeepers ensured that marginal views were pushed to the margin.
Compare that to today, when anyone can broadcast whatever they like to the entire world, instantaneously, anonymously and at zero cost, without mediation, moderation or editing of any kind. The wonder is not that this has not worked as hoped; the wonder is why anyone believed it would. For however much might have changed, two things have not: the processing power of the human mind, and the depravity of human appetites. Social media have drowned the public in a flood of lies, bigotry and other lunatic nonsense, available at a glance, at all times and wherever they happen to be. The sheer volume has overwhelmed their senses, forcing them to choose not what to believe, but whom; not what is true, but who’s got my back.
To work, the marketplace of ideas requires more than the mere absence of legal restraint. It depends, to a degree I had not appreciated until now, upon a kind of supportive infrastructure, much as other markets do. The freest of markets cannot operate in a vacuum. There has to be some way to enforce contracts, a common medium of exchange and so on. Likewise, the marketplace of ideas cannot function without certain basic rules of the house, to ensure an orderly exchange. This does not mean state regulation, except in the most limited sense: criminal sanctions on fraud and incitement to violence and civil remedies for libel and slander – the same short list as now.
What is missing are the gatekeepers. The founders of Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms have until now pretended that they bore no responsibility for what appeared on their sites. That position is no longer tenable, and they know it. Civil discourse cannot long be sustained if we are forever relitigating basic facts – whether the Earth is round, or whether the world is ruled by a cabal of pedophilic Satanists, or whether Mr. Trump lost the election. True, the monopolistic nature of social media means there are fewer gatekeepers than before, leaving less of a competitive check on capricious or arbitrary decisions about what is admissible to the public square. Fine, then: break them up, give those excluded some right of appeal, come up with some decentralized process for deciding these questions that does not rely on the judgment of a handful of chief executives. Something.
But one way or another, things cannot go on as they have. We don’t have to give up on free speech. We have to give it room to breathe.
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