Free Speech, Social Media, and Intellectual Silos
In a recent article for CNN, Kara Alaimo voices some concerns about speech and social media. Though she makes frequent use of the term “free speech”, what she’s really worried about is unmoderated speech – that is, speech which isn’t restrained by the platform hosting the speaker.
To be clear, I believe platforms have every right to moderate speech in whatever way they wish, and that such moderation does not constitute censorship. Censorship, as I understand the term, only occurs when the state forbids or prevents some form of expression. If a history podcast refuses to provide a platform to a Holocaust denier, the podcast is not engaged in censorship, nor is the Holocaust denier being deprived of his right to free speech. Your right to free speech does not entitle you to use someone else’s private platform against their will.
Alaimo is worried that social media platforms like Twitter, Parler, and Truth Social are insufficiently aggressive about moderating what she considers to be “conservative” speech. But in her article she also explains, without realizing it, why attempts to shut down certain viewpoints in these platforms will backfire in ways she would find regrettable.
If you take people who hold a certain worldview (conservatism, say) and systematically shut them out of a public forum, those people don’t simply disappear. Nor do they lose interest in discussing their ideas. Instead they will simply form a new platform designed for themselves and for like minded people. As Alaimo points out, this is exactly how platforms like Parler and Truth Social came into existence in the first place. And given how these new platforms are intellectually siloed from opposing viewpoints, they end up breeding more and more extreme versions of the views they originally hosted. In her words:
[T]hese three social media platforms are likely to serve as ecosystems for conservative thought. This will likely make the views of those who remain on them more extreme — which could have a radical effect on our politics. That’s because when people who think similarly come together, they reaffirm and heighten one another’s initial beliefs…Those who remain in these conservative spaces will become even more extreme as a result of their interactions, which could cultivate a dangerous far-right ideology that has far-reaching effects on our politics.
To me, this reaffirms not just the value, but the crucial necessity of open dialogue with a wide variety of voices- especially when those voices advocate views you find abhorrent. Banishing them from a platform doesn’t merely prevent you from hearing their discomforting views. It also prevents them from being exposed to opposing views as well, and it drives them deeper into an intellectual silo which further entrenches, and strengthens, the very views you found so objectionable in the first place.
And sometimes- not always, but sometimes- open and unmoderated discussion really does work. To use one highly cherry picked example, consider the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church. She has left that organization behind, and has become a powerful voice for a much more loving and tolerant worldview. What caused her to change her mind, to abandon her worldview and lose most of her family, and to become an advocate for everything she used to oppose? It was having her views challenged on Twitter. If Twitter had banned the Phelps family early on (as I suspect Alaimo would have wanted), Megan Phelps-Roper would almost certainly continue to be a member of the Westboro Baptist Church to this day.
I’ll grant that cases like Megan Phelps-Roper are not as common as I’d like. Arguments often fail to dislodge bad ideas, especially when the mind is unwilling. But at the end of the day, the only tools we have to oppose bad ideas are persuasion or violence. The only way to peacefully defeat bad ideas is by exposing those who hold them to better ideas and engaging with them, and the only way for that to happen is to keep the conversation open. Trying to shut bad ideas out of the conversation doesn’t make the bad ideas go away – on the contrary, it virtually guarantees that those bad ideas will be here to stay.
And besides, maybe I am the one who holds bad views that ought to be dislodged. If that’s true, I want to know, and the only way I would be able to know is by engaging with advocates of ideas very different from my own. The more opportunities there are for that, the better.
Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.