The Epic Battle to Control Your Thoughts

We live in an age of information choice in production, consumption, and distribution. But something strange is going on. The range of opinion you are likely experiencing is narrowing rather than broadening.

Consider the flurry of recent events.

  • Google has begun exploring the idea of the “good censor.”
  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Facebook has recently deleted as many as 1,000 accounts including independent media that I’ve variously used.​​​​​​​
  • Twitter has deleted thousands of accounts, using a censorious tilt, targeting right-leaning people.​​​​​​​
  • YouTube is going with the flow too, having demonetized many one-time stars. Many now worry that their channels could be pulled without notice.​​​​​​​
  • ​​​​​​​Searching for content today on the web feels like 15 years ago: unapproved opinion lower in rank and sometimes invisible.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The excuse of the past, with which I have variously sympathized, is that the users have violated the terms of use. These are private platforms. They are entitled to curate content. You have to do this, which you know if you have ever been an admin of an internet forum. You can count on about 3 percent of users to be troll accounts that ruin everything for everyone.

There is nothing wrong with a platform owner culling the place of violence, fraud, hate, and so on. But lately, the excuse has not held up. There is more going on. The attempt to censor has become episodically topical. When it becomes extremely urgent for you to have only one point of view, the censors get to work.

Maybe you began to suspect this was taking place during the hearings over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. The hearings and accusations against him gripped the nation. But when you went to look for news, there was not much of a real debate taking place on the credibility of the claims made against him.

Now The New York Times has admitted that it worked to delete views other than the ones advanced in its own pages. “Journalists find themselves acting as unpaid content moderators for these platforms,” writes the editorial page, giving the example of these hearings. In particular, “The Times found a number of suspicious [Facebook] pages spreading viral misinformation about” Kavanaugh and his accusers. “After The Times showed Facebook some of those pages, the company … took down the pages flagged by The Times.”

What is this, some struggle between mainstream vs. alternative media, a battle over the bans? This really does take us to a new realm. The terms of use are increasingly about the opinions expressed rather than anything truly threatening. It’s an attempt to control the conversation. But note that it did not work in this case. The confirmation went through, and GOP voters felt emboldened by the experience.

The driving motivation for this new approach traces to two years ago. These social media platforms were widely blamed for the Republican presidential victory in 2016, under the strange assumption that people have no idea what they are doing and so blindly follow the views of ads that appear in their feeds.

What’s starting to emerge as the living reality is precisely the most paranoid fears of right-leaning critics in the past couple of years. These platforms are pushing a political agenda. It’s not about terms of use. It’s about deleting political views that executives of these companies do not like.

At what point is free speech truly in danger? Free speech is one of the most settled principles of law and public policy, or so you might think. We recoil at censorships of the past. We acknowledge the freedom to speak as an essential human right. We are taught the legend and lore of the struggle for it in all our years in school.

And all of this is fine … until it is actually exercised, as it is every moment today, thanks to the mass distribution of communication technology. We are finally getting what we always wanted: the universal right and opportunity to reach the universe of humanity in an instant with thoughts of our own choosing. It turns out the incumbent masters of civic opinion are not fans of this system.

Mainstream commentators on all sides are annoyed that extremists have crashed their once-stable ideological culture, while the speech rebels say that the mainstream has never been truthful.

The whole battle is growing increasingly tense. The center-left is shaken to the point of documenting every nutty thing you find on the internet. Vox showed how fake news in 2016 “filtered into the mainstream again and again: at the end of the election, fake news on Facebook outperformed real news, and 17 of the 20 highest-performing fake news stories were anti-Clinton.”

The populist right is warming to the Trump plan for dealing with press he doesn’t like. “One of the things I’m going to do if I win,” promised Trump, “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” People at his rallies ate it up. And you can find hundreds of thousands of people on various pro-Deplorable groups on Reddit and Facebook who passionately agree with him. He never misses a chance to blast the press at his rallies.

The problem: the freedom to criticize the president has been an established feature of American law since the election of 1800 led to the repudiation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had made it a crime to criticize the top of the ticket. The laws criminalized anyone who would “write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the president. Voters in those days wisely noted that the First Amendment surely invalidates such laws.

Freedom or Control

The urge to censor is the tribute that elite opinion pays to the power of ideas. The idea of free speech, in contrast, is that it creates conditions under which truth stands a chance to emerge from the clamor, while the attempt to control ends up politicizing what we are and are not permitted to hear. It’s true that freedom does not guarantee any particular result, but it does give good results a fighting chance while reinforcing other important things like human rights.

These days, that’s not good enough for some people. The lefty crowd continues to believe that bad information flowing around the public square is what accounts for an otherwise-perfectly executed campaign in 2016. On the other side of the fence, there is a growing fear bordering on paranoia that Twitter, Facebook, and other social venues are nothing but stalking horses for deep-state power, and so should probably be nationalized so that Trump can control them (talk about short-sighted).

What’s so striking about these debates is that censorship has never been less viable than it is today. Try to suppress access in one venue and it immediately pops up on another one. Make it clear that some ideas are not welcome here, and you inspire an invisible army of champions of that idea to build yet another venue. You can block, ban, and exclude through known technologies only to have the same pop up in another technology you didn’t know about.

Non-mainstream views might be harder to find. You might not get a push notification on your phone. They might not rank among the top hits in the search bar. You might not hear the views on NPR in the morning. But the opinions are out there, even if it takes some work to find them.

People complain that they are being censored, but this is not literally true. What’s happening on digital media today is the attempt to recreate a civic consensus of opinion such as existed in the pre-internet age. Consider this: From the end of World War II through the Reagan presidency, there prevailed only three television networks. The government itself exercised the primary influence over the content. These networks began to think of themselves as public utilities, a ruling class, a protected elite, and they dispensed canons of the civic religion on a daily basis.

Monopoly Broken

All of that has blown up. The cartel crumbled in the late 1980s, creating an avalanche of speech that only grows in power. Now the Big Three combined take up only a small percentage of people’s attention relative to the millions of other possible venues. And speaking of millions, the Big Three have become hundreds of millions of people with instant live-television cameras in their pockets, which they can use to broadcast to the multitudes, with zero civic control on the content.

Yes, you can be banned from this or that venue. You might have to shift and create a new log-in and try a new service. There is no shutting this system down, despite all the talk of curation, censorship, lawsuits, algorithmic fixes, and so on.

It’s true that the closing of accounts on mainstream social media has created a genuine sense of fear. You could be next. I could be next. At the same time, we are seeing the rise of platforms that are less centralized and more censorship-resistant. This is good and necessary. It’s the next stage of freedom.

Are fake news, hate, mania, immorality, and political dissent of all types going to continue to thrive unchecked? In a word, yes. Every manner of everything will continue to be accessible to everyone. We need to learn to revel in and celebrate finding videos, podcasts, accounts, and channels featuring ideas you find disgusting, abhorrent, false, and dangerous. Others’ freedom to speak protects your freedom to speak.

Under freedom, everyone participates in, but no one finally wins, the argument. It’s a never-ending process. How can we tell truth from untruth in such a chaotic environment? There is no substitute for trusting the individual human mind to sort out what is true news or fake news, valuable information or valueless information, meritorious or useless communication. No authority can substitute for the activity, creativity, and adaptability of the human mind.

Welcome to freedom, friends. This is how it works. And it’s beautiful.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn