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Speech is not harmful: A lesson to be relearned

Be careful what you clamor for. You demand that platforms deal with harmful speech. Then he whose speech is thus affected unleashes the dogs of Trump. They harass the platform and its employees for exercising their freedom of speech. They threaten to limit freedom of expression for everyone on that platform and the net — including you.

Thus efforts to control noxious, right-wing speech have backfired as the right-wing exploits every tool used against them. The weapons Trump brandishes — regulating social platforms, limiting or repealing Section 230, redirecting government advertising, blaming algorithmic “bias,” demanding “neutrality,” defining the net as media and platforms as publishers — are things proposed by those who want to limit harmful speech online. In his so-called executive order, the Troll in Chief is using them all for his ends. Have we learned nothing from bad actors online— that every function, every lever, every precedent that can be gamed and exploited by them will be? Now Section 230, our best protection of freedom of expression on the internet, is in peril.

The more I study net regulation, the more of a free-speech absolutist I become. To think that speech is harmful is almost inevitably a third-person effect: believing that everyone else — but not you — is vulnerable to bad words and ideas and that protecting them from it will cure their ignorance. There is but one cure for ignorance: education. The goal of education is to prepare the mind to wrestle with lies and hatred and idiocy … and win.

It is worthwhile to remind us of that very argument made long ago by Franklin, Milton, and Wilkes. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine.

In 1731 Benjamin Franklin was fed up with people complaining about what came off his press — not just in his newspaper, but even in advertisements — and so he wrote an Apology for Printers, which was nothing of the sort. I’m going to take the heart of that essay and substitute modern words like platform and social media for old-fashioned words like printer to make my point: that Franklin’s point still stands. Let me be clear: I do not believe the internet is a medium. It is a platform, a platform for facts and opinions and conversation about them. That is how Franklin viewed his press, as a platform. He wrote:

I request all who are angry with me on the Account of serving things they don’t like, calmly to consider these following Particulars

1. That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb, So many Men so many Minds.

2. That the Business of Social Media has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions; most things that are posted tending to promote some, or oppose others….

4. That it is as unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is posted, as to think that nobody ought to be pleas’d but themselves.

5. Technologists are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Twitter or Facebook users, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.

6. Being thus continually employ’d in serving all Parties, Platforms naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’d in what they serve; regarding it only as the Matter of their daily labour: They serve things full of Spleen and Animosity, with the utmost Calmness and Indifference, and without the least Ill-will to the Persons reflected on; who nevertheless unjustly think the Platform as much their Enemy as the Tweeter, and join both together in their Resentment.

7. That it is unreasonable to imagine Platforms approve of every thing they serve, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly; since in the way of their Business they serve such great variety of things opposite and contradictory. It is likewise as unreasonable what some assert, That Platforms ought not to serve any Thing but what they approve; since if all of that Business should make such a Resolution, and abide by it, an End would thereby be put to Free Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming and TikToking and YouTubing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of the Technologists.

8. That if all Platforms were determin’d not to serve any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little posted.

9. That if they sometimes serve vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because they approve such things themselves, but because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged….

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” — John Milton, the Areopagitica

In 1638 Milton visited Gilileo, who was under house arrest for what authorities decreed were his dangerous ideas and harmful speech. Milton paid tribute to Galileo, including him in Paradise Lost, and the visit helped inspire the Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 polemic against the licensing of books in England and in defense of freedom of expression.

The abolition of the Star Chamber in 1637 had led to the effective end of censorship and a flowering of publishing — too much publishing for the taste of authorities. In 1643, Parliament passed a Licensing Order “for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government.” Might as well add tweets and Facebook comments to the list. Parliament argued, as unfortunately some do today, that there was too much speech. Bad actors, they said, “have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish, and disperse books, pamphlets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment all the several abounding Delinquents.”

Speech scaled and control did not. In England, the Stationers Company — a private, industry organization for printers — had been deputized to regulate this speech, just as Twitter and Facebook are expected to do today. The Order decreed no publication could be printed unless it was first licensed.

In the Areopagitica Milton rose up in righteous, eloquent anger in defense of speech, of debate, of learning, and of this less-than-200-year-old art of printing.

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life … of that living intellect that bred them.” Thus, Milton said, one might as well “kill a man as kill a good book…. he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.”

But what of bad books? Well, who is to decide the difference? A Star Chamber? The Stationers Company? Twitter? Facebook’s Oversight Board? The White House? Courts? Or readers? “Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.” That is God speaking to Pope Dionysius of Alexandria in 240 A.D., according to Milton.

We learn by testing ourselves, Milton argues. “That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary…. Our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise.” He acknowledges the authorities’ fears that bad speech is “the infection that may spread” — just what we hold this fear today about internet disinformation. But he contends that “evil manners are as perfectly learned without books” and so eliminating bad books will not staunch the infection. So: “A fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without a book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly.”

This is Milton’s article of faith: “See the ingenuity of Truth, who, when she gets a free and willing hand, opens herself faster than the pace of … discourse can overtake her.” And: “And though the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple.”

Yet he adds a caution: ‘Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.” Truth is not a product to be packaged. It is a choice.

He makes two key arguments: that citizens need to learn by facing and rejecting sin (“When God gave him reason,” Milton says of Adam, “he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing”) and that no small group of men is capable of making decisions to protect citizens from those choices: “Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this country? Who shall still appoint what shall be discoursed, what presumed, and no further? Lastly, who shall forbid and separate all idle resort, all evil company?”

Milton warned of the precedents licensing would set. If we license printing, must we not then license dancing and lutes and lyrics and visitors who bring ideas? And what does Adam teach us about forbidden fruit? “The punishing of wits enhances their authority… This Order, therefore, may provide a nursing-mother to sects.” To forbid it is to spread it; that is another lesson of disinformation on the net.

Milton, like Franklin, recognizes the value of the public conversation: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” I cannot help but also call on James Carey, who said: “Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” In the development of the net I have come to see that what we are witnessing is a society relearning how to have a conversation with itself.

But what of nasty, hateful conversations with trolls? Should we not be protected from them?

I give you John Wilkes, the urtroll, who is also, in the title of Arthur H. Cash’s biography, The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. Wilkes was, by every description, unattractive, a cur, a libertine, a smartass. He feuded with the prime minister, Lord Bute, and published anonymously a newspaper that mocked him, which “proceeded with an acrimony, a spirit, and a licentiousness unheared [sic] of before even in this country,” said Horace Walpole.

In the first issue of the North Briton, Wilkes called a free press “the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country … the terror of all bad ministers.” Says Cash: “Wilkes was in constant danger of having his ironies taken literally by humorless or stupid men.” Indeed, Wilkes and his printers were arrested and his papers seized and there were attempts to rob him of his seat in Parliament.

But he persevered and in the process, according to Cash, set many legal precedents: the end of general warrants, the establishment of a right to privacy, an enhanced right to sue the government for false arrest, in addition to a right to transparency of Parliament and freedom of the press. Wilkes did it by nastily trolling, because that was the power he had at hand. Wilkes is a hero of mine, not as a troll, of course, but as a defender of liberty.

Larry Kramer, who died this week, was also a hero of mine. He was also a troll, a power he used when it was all he had to save lives at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Hear Dr. Anthony Fauci about their relationship:

“How did I meet Larry? He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine.” …

Addressing Dr. Fauci in the letter, Mr. Kramer wrote: “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”

“I thought, ‘This guy, I need to reach out to him,’” Dr. Fauci recalled. “So I did, and we started talking. We realized we had things in common.”

How better to tell the story of the power of listening?

So what speech is it you want to control? Hate? I hate our president and say so. Lies? Who wants an official truth but the officials who set it? Trolling? We risk losing the righteous power of Wilkes and Kramer and the opportunity to learn from them.

Donald Trump is a hateful, lying troll. So what should Twitter do with him? Whatever it wants to. That is the point. That is its right as a private entity in the United States. That is its freedom of expression. It has the freedom to do nothing, to delete his tweets, to add fact checks and warnings to them, to not promote them. I think it is now doing the right thing.

Above all, what Facebook and Twitter and every technology company should be doing is deciding why they exist. I have complained that in establishing its Oversight Board, Facebook has not set a North Star, a raison d’être for the platform. Why does it exist? What behavior on it is beneficial and welcome and what is not, for what reason? They are asking the 20 wise members of the Oversight Board — its Stationers Company — to enforce a set of statutes without a Constitution. Twitter, by its actions, is beginning to write its Constitution, to decide what is acceptable and not and why. Those are their decisions to make.

So what of Trump’s people, those whom he eggs on? Well, what are the characteristics we know of his so-called base: they are uneducated, white males. White, male entitlement matters. But uneducated, that is the key. To update Milton as I updated Franklin: “A fool will be a fool with the best Twitter, yea or without Twitter.”

If we try to use official power to restrain speech on social media, we give fools the power to restrain wisdom there. That is what Trump is trying to do. We must recognize it for what it is: not a legal but a political ploy, an unconstitutional one, also unAmerican. We must fight to protect the freedom of expression, even for fools, so we protect our own. We must fight for the net.

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