Free Speech, Social Media, and Intellectual Silos

By:

  Kevin Corcoran

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. 

READER COMMENTS

Mactoul
Nov 21 2022 at 9:34pm

Yet there can be ideas that must be prevented from being given public square. For example,  celebration of bestiality,  paedophila. Such ideas gain hold in individual mindspace by just being publicized.

Andre
Nov 21 2022 at 11:42pm

“[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”

Interesting. The way I view it, most platforms and media channels, having banished quite a few right and center-leaning viewpoints, have become more extreme. Unchecked, they nurtured prominent voices advocating for child mutilation, calling half the country a threat to democracy, etc., and banishing those who disagree.

CBS today had a story on the laptop, more than two years late. If the people who mentioned the story two years ago hadn’t been excommunicated from all the major platforms, Twitter, CBS, NPR, etc. might have spared themselves from being a major source of disinformation on this and all sorts of other issues.

Jon Murphy
Nov 22 2022 at 7:27am

I think it’s important to note that th siloing she notes occurs naturally on social media regardless of moderated content. Parlar, Truth Social, etc., are just particular cases of a larger trend.

On social media, we get to choose who we interact with. People naturally build their own bubbles and choose who to let in and who to exclude. Some folks will silo themselves, some will not. Truth Social et al merely reflect this choice.

For example, my Facebook is quite ideologically diverse. I have people ranging from hard-core leftists to people so far right Trump looks moderate. Especially during the pandemic, many folks purged friends from their social media for having wrong opinions. These groups have more and more siloed themselves away from opposing viewpoints and consequently become very extreme.*

*As an interesting side-note, these siloed groups all claim Facebook, Twitter, etc. are all condicuting ideological purges of them. The far left groups claim every time one of them is blocked, banned, or kicked off the platform that it is further evidence of the right-wing control of social media, and vice versa. Siloing restricts our ability to hear opposing viewpoints and warps our ability to properly interpret data.

Andre
Nov 22 2022 at 8:12am

“[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”

When viewpoints get siloed, it isn’t just one side that gets more extreme.

By excommunicating many right, center, and even mild left viewpoints, today’s most prominent media outlets have themselves become more extreme on all kinds of issues, to society’s detriment.

Daniel Carroll
Nov 22 2022 at 10:24am

There are two elephants in the room regarding speech not mentioned here:

The use of the platforms to manipulate and misinform, whether as propaganda (intentional) or ideology (unintentional). Indeed, in the political realm, the problem with social media is that it enables manipulation, as ideological and political actors target it for that purpose.
The use of bots to clutter and devalue whatever speech is posted to the platforms. Bots are usually designed to create noise and confusion, or amplify certain ideologies.

Moderation is necessary if the goal of the platform is to foster civil dialogue and edification. For instance, if what we want is to have a debate between conservative and progressive ideas, effective moderation would enable that. Imagine having a debate in an auditorium where anybody with a boombox can run in and shout or play anything at any time. Likewise, the platforms as currently organized, fill timelines with noise, often even amplifying the noise, drowning out civil debate.

Generally speaking, civil dialogue has not been the goal of social media companies, as manipulation and noise is more profitable. But they still moderate – incoherently and inconsistently – due to external pressure and because enough of their users and advertisers demand that the extremists and bots be curtailed.

The social media business model is still in flux. It is not clear to me that the current iteration will survive the next decade, but I am also not sure what will succeed it.

MarkW
Nov 23 2022 at 4:30pm

Censorship, as I understand the term, only occurs when the state forbids or prevents some form of expression. 

It also occurs (and apparently has occurred repeatedly) when government officials nudge, coerce, or  threaten private companies into censorship.  This is the form of government censorship that has been happening (as with Covid ‘misinformation’ and as with the Hunter Biden laptop story and other issues) that we really need to worry about rather than direct, overt censorship.

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