Free speech, social networks, and misinformation

This is slavery, not to speak one's thought.

It's basically a cliché these days, but if you're not paying, you're not the customer, you're the product.

But what happens when the service which sells your attention is something that you find that you need to use to remain connected to a community, to friends, to family? What happens when you reach a critical mass of people and coordination and consensus are too elusive for you all to collectively decide that enough is enough, and it's now time for you to move on to somewhere else?


If you're new to my blog, it's a little awkward that this is probably the only "serious" and non-wanky post. But also... well, meh. It's my blog.


There's this weird idea that speech should be free, that it should be unencumbered. Heck, there's another idea that most things should be unencumbered and you should only need to be honest in your dealings and not harm other people. Of course, those are probably the bare minimum for a respectful and civilised society, but it doesn't stop there.

Freedom of speech, on the other hand? It's something that some idealistic people in the colonies made up - not our colonies, mind you, but in the much older, "United" States of America. Why? Because when it boils down to it, you need to be able to discuss and critique your government for a healthy society, and so "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech".

We have a similar provision in the Australian constitution which represents an implied freedom of political speech, but the explicitness of the American constitution is often lauded by its citizens and those who hold the American model of government up as an example for the world to follow, and to be exported to other lands on the planet.

But you know what? They got it wrong.

Not the part where the government should be prohibited from restraining criticism of itself, but really, in the way that "freedom of speech" has essentially become a thought-terminating cliche.

Instead of teaching people and making clear the rationale for the first amendment, instead people are told that the United States has this thing called "freedom of speech". What does that mean? Well, most people seem to think that it means that you can say whatever the hell you want without consequences (not true), and not only do other people have to listen to you (also not true), your speech and your ideas must be maintained, unchallenged, ad infinitum - and how dare a social media company curtail your right to say whatever you want, whenever you want.

In reality, the First Amendment is not unfettered. There's a whole list of exceptions to free speech in the USA, and that's only in the USA - you don't even really get that much consideration in Australia, nor most other countries.

And you might not like it. You might wish for a world where no-one can tell you what you can and can't say, but that's not the world you live in now - or at least, it's not the case that you can say whatever you want and risk some punishment, based on laws that have been passed wherever you say it.

Some people might believe that it's their right to disregard laws that they don't agree with, consequences be damned. If I want to spread lies about someone or something, why shouldn't I be allowed to?

Recently I've heard two arguments against restraining expression: one is that you should be free to express whatever you want, and that social media companies (namely, Facebook) shouldn't be permitted to stop you from doing so, and that it's up to each individual person to make decisions for themselves based on these expressions - personal responsibility. This was said in the context of Facebook taking down a video from a group of doctors claiming that hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective remedy for COVID-19, citing anecdotal evidence in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus that establishes no such thing.

This would take the argument for free speech too far, in my view - why should a private corporation (keeping in mind that the forbearance on restricting expression applies to the government, and even that has boundaries) be bound not only to allow you to post things which are demonstrably false (which they do anyway), but also to maintain it in perpetuity? Don't companies have a right to curate public perception of them, and the content that they deliver?

That's a bit of a moot point, since Facebook doesn't give you an unfiltered, neutral stream of content - it gives you a very-much algorithmically-curated stream of content with the objective of keeping you on the site or in their apps for as long as possible, because they sell your attention for profit (see above). So, while they're promoting some posts and quietly suppressing others (an unavoidable consequence of us having limited attention spans and finite time each day) to maximise the amount of time you spend looking at those posts, what is their responsibility to the truth, or at the very least, to avoid being complicit in spreading lies? None? If Facebook can spread lies, why can't I? If Facebook needs to not only display lies to me, but to spread the more salacious ones, then why should I be punished for doing the same?

And since I don't (and probably can't) claim to be completely original, why should I be punished for any lies at all? Aren't I just reinterpreting and regurgitating ideas I've heard elsewhere?

The other view I've heard is that you should be able to express your views any time, place, and way you want, but you should be able to deal with the consequences, ranging from praise to physical violence. Somewhat confusingly, this was in the same context as the previous view. I'm not convinced that the two can be held at the same time, by the same person, without contradicting each other inherently.

If you should be able to express anything you want, anywhere you want, in anyway you want as long as you're prepared to deal with the consequences, then... doesn't this mean that if someone decides to fact-check or remove your content (on their platform, mind you; you're in their house), that's a consequence you just need to deal with? Isn't this just them asserting a response to you?

There's a simple explanation - perhaps slightly overly-simplistic - of course, and one I'm worried will be considered... offensive. It's a failure of critical thinking, with some conspiracy-thinking tendencies sprinkled in.

It's not about thinking about the consequences of applying your rule on what should and shouldn't be allowed more broadly and from behind a veil of ignorance, it's that I can't do what I want, and instead of just saying that, it needs to be a principled stand because those are selfless instead of self-serving.

It's the same sort of thinking that finds patterns where none exist, and where it seems like everyone is out to suppress the truth. Of course, some conspiracies do exist, but you know what? Probably fewer than you think, and those that do exist probably affect fewer people than you think. Not convinced? How many conspiracies are you a part of? Now extrapolate.

The problem with today's world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it.

The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!


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