You say you’re worried about the attempted violent overthrow of the government of the United States by unhinged followers of Donald Trump, or the further coup attempts promised for the days to come? Well, what about the real coup, far more dangerous in its implications: the coup de Twitter?
That was the response from many on the populist right to Twitter’s decision, after last week’s assault on the Capitol, to shut down Mr. Trump’s account, as Facebook had done a day earlier. Why, this was the sort of thing that happened under Mao or Stalin, offered no less an authority than Donald Trump Jr. Free speech was dead, said others. It was like something out of 1984, said those who had plainly never read 1984.
Further actions by Amazon and Apple to part ways with Parler, the “free speech” social-media site to which much of the far right had already decamped, seemed to cement the belief in certain quarters that Big Tech had executed a kind of putsch against freedom of expression.
I like to think my credentials as a free-speech extremist are in order. Over the years, I’ve argued against federal hate-speech laws, provincial human-rights laws that equate offensive speech with discrimination, university speech codes and the like. So perhaps you will believe me when I say these fears of a coming “digital gulag” are nonsense.
It’s too simple to point out – though many have – that these are the actions of private companies, not the government; freedom of speech means the state is forbidden from unduly restricting speech, not that others are obliged to promote it. That’s true as far as it goes. But the legal protections for free speech are only as strong as the broader culture’s belief that speech is valuable and worthy of protection.
As such, all of us, in a liberal society, have an obligation to act in the spirit of free speech, and the closer we come to the public square – the more nearly the institution in question resembles the government – the more keenly that obligation ought to be felt. A university has the right to ban a controversial speaker from its halls, but in most cases it should not.
Is Mr. Trump merely a controversial speaker? Of course not. First, he is the President: a hundred cameras stand ready at all times to broadcast his every word around the world. The notion that his speech is in any meaningful way restricted because he is not also on Twitter is absurd. Second, the speech in question is not merely controversial: It is demonstrably harmful.
If it were only that he lies, almost literally with every breath, that would be one thing. But Mr. Trump’s lies have grown increasingly toxic, especially the false and inflammatory claim that the presidential election was “stolen” from him and his supporters. Violence, as we saw last week, was the all-too-predictable result – and it is reasonable to suppose, the FBI informs us, that it will be the result again.
Whether or not this meets the definition, stringent and limited as it must be, of speech deserving of state sanction, it is clearly Twitter’s right to say they want no part of this. Indeed, it is not just its right but arguably its obligation – the obverse of its obligation to make as much room for speech, even speech that offends, as possible. But this wasn’t just offensive speech. This was incitement to violence: not as a matter of abstract speculation, but as a clear and present danger.
The same applies to much of what appears on Parler. It is not conservatism that has been thus targeted. We are not talking about robust debates over tax policy here, but people plotting assassinations, violent revolution and race war.
There will be many who are unsympathetic to Mr. Trump or the far right who will nonetheless be uneasy at the sight of a few large corporations deciding who is and is not permitted to use their platforms – and therefore gain access to the public square. It was Mr. Trump this time, but who’s to say it will not be another, less objectionable figure the next?
I do not see that there is an alternative. The fever swamp of the internet has become the breeding ground of monsters; if Big Tech does not step in, the state will. I have some confidence the tech companies can figure out how to screen out the truly vile stuff without undue harm to the free play of ideas. I have no confidence the government can.
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