Free speech and censorship
by Ed Sawicki - March 21, 2021
“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” –Twitter, January 8, 2021
Picking a side in political debates is sometimes dead simple. Kids in cages is definitely bad. Raising the minimum wage–obvious. Many other issues are not simple. One difficult issue for me is free speech and the current trend to censor hate speech and speech meant to deceive.
Twitter permanently banning Trump on January 8, 2021—shortly after the attack on the Capitol that Trump encouraged—seemed like the correct thing to do. I have little doubt that Americans are safer after the ban than before. Many other social media bannings have occurred before and after. Many of those bannings were of right-wingers promoting violence, such as Steve Bannon calling for Doctor Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to be beheaded. It doesn't seem logical to suggest that Bannon's call for murder qualifies as free speech.
Recently, journalists and authors that I respect, such as Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Thomas Frank, have cautioned us about this suppression of free speech. I don't automatically agree with them, but I'd be a fool not to consider their viewpoints seriously. The following is how I currently see the issue. Note that I'm a computer systems engineer/analyst by profession, so I tend to use these skills to evaluate things.
In the medical field, such as the currently important field of virology, a healthy host may require vaccines to fight attacks against it. We don't say, “I won't get the vaccine because COVID-19 has rights too.” or deny that the vaccine is necessary in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Well, rational people don't.
From a systems engineering perspective, a properly-functioning system must have error-checking and error-recovery when the data is bad. We don't allow bad data to foul the system because of some notion that it too has rights. Our society may not be a machine, but we have the equivalent of an engineering document to describe its proper function - our Constitution and body of Law.
“If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” – Justice Louis D. Brandeis, 1927
The United States used to have a Fairness Doctrine that provided a method of handling the broadcast of information that could be damaging to our society. It didn't suppress speech; it ensured that it was countered by other speech, just as Justice Brandeis suggested. It helped suppress the formation of large societal “bubbles” of misinformation. The Fairness Doctrine was destroyed by the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan and replaced with extreme political speech and political bubbles that, nearly 40-years later, have proven themselves to wreak havoc on our society.
But we've changed since the Fairness Doctrine. We're no longer in the world of 20th Century broadcast media where we're limited to a small number of content creators serving a vast audience. We have the Internet and social media, where we're all content creators. Or, are we?
When you take a good look at how social media is used, we don't really have a huge population of content creators. We have a huge population of people who copy the content produced by the relatively few gods of their bubbles (Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, for example) to their fellow bubble citizenry (bubblezens?). So, I believe that a modern-day Fairness Doctrine could still work and be better than the slippery slope of righteous censorship.
Would either side of the political divide accept it after decades of entrenchment?
Would the political parties be willing to lose the wedge issues they rely on for fund-raising?
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