- Jan 2020
As an American and a staunch defender of the First Amendment, I’m allergic to the notion of forbidden speech. But if government is going to forbid it, it damned well better clearly define what is forbidden or else the penumbra of prohibition will cast a shadow and chill on much more speech.
Perhaps it's not what people are saying so much as platforms are accelerating it algorithmically? It's one thing for someone to foment sedition, praise Hitler, or yell their religious screed on the public street corner. The problem comes when powerful interests in the form of governments, corporations, or others provide them with megaphones and tacitly force audiences to listen to it.
When Facebook or Youtube optimize for clicks keyed on social and psychological constructs using fringe content, we're essentially saying that machines, bots, and extreme fringe elements are not only people, but that they've got free speech rights, and they can be prioritized with the reach and exposure of major national newspapers and national television in the media model of the 80's.
I highly suspect that if real people's social media reach were linear and unaccelerated by algorithms we wouldn't be in the morass we're generally seeing on many platforms.
Many of the book’s essayists defend freedom of expression over freedom from obscenity. Says Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld (father of Joseph, who would become executive editor of The New York Times): “Freedom of expression, if it is to be meaningful at all, must include freedom for ‘that which we loathe,’ for it is obvious that it is no great virtue and presents no great difficulty for one to accord freedom to what we approve or to that to which we are indifferent.” I hear too few voices today defending speech of which they disapprove.
I might take issue with this statement and possibly a piece of Jarvis' argument here. I agree that it's moral panic that there could be such a thing as "too much speech" because humans have a hard limit for how much they can individually consume.
The issue I see is that while anyone can say almost anything, the problem becomes when a handful of monopolistic players like Facebook or YouTube can use algorithms to programattically entice people to click on and consume fringe content in mass quantities and that subtly, but assuredly nudges the populace and electorate in an unnatural direction. Most of the history of human society and interaction has long tended toward a centralizing consensus in which we can manage to cohere. The large scale effects of algorithmic-based companies putting a heavy hand on the scales are sure to create unintended consequences and they're able to do it at scales that the Johnson and Nixon administrations only wish they had access to.
If we look at as an analogy to the evolution of weaponry, I might suggest we've just passed the border of single shot handguns and into the era of machine guns. What is society to do when the next evolution occurs into the era of social media atomic weapons?