Free Speech

If you’ve been around on the internet for a while there is a good chance you’ve seen this comic at least once:

XKCD 1357 by Randall Munroe

For a long time this comic has been used as a kind of trump card in any debate about free speech on the internet. The argument goes that your right to free speech only entitles you to protection from the government for what you say, that you’re not entitled to access to any private platform to voice that speech. On the face of it this argument seems reasonable. After all if someone commented on my blog here with something that I thought was inflammatory or unnecessarily offensive I would delete it, and reserve the right to do so. However does it hold up when we’re talking about the mega sized social media companies that currently monopolize discourse on the internet? Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Reddit.

As a thought experiment lets consider a village that has monthly meetings at the local pub. They use these meetings to voice their concerns to each other and the leaders of the village. Someone says something that the others don’t like and the barkeep throws him out and bars him from coming back. Now the villagers might argue that the individuals right to speech hasn’t been infringed, only his ability to voice it in a private establishment. However without the ability to go in and speak his mind in the place where the important discourse for the running of the village occurs this individual has effectively been de facto deprived of his free speech. Because even if the individual can still speak freely, he doesn’t have access to the center of communication necessary to make his speech heard. It’s the old question, does a tree that falls in the woods make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? Similarly we could easily ask if someone has the right to “free speech” but is banned from every space where the discourse is occurring does it even matter if they can still technically yell into the void?

It’s an important issue as people congregate onto these sites to give their opinions on all manner of issues. A huge issue in our current society is the continual compartmentalization of communities into smaller and smaller like minded groups. It has become all too easy for people to isolate themselves into safe like-minded groups without ever having to deal with the messiness of justifying their positions to people who hold opposing opinions. Like it or not these social media platforms are the primary way for people to voice their opinions now, they’re the equivalent of having the town meeting in the local pub. It might be private property but if you’re kicked out then you’re essentially barred from the national conversation. As these platforms continually purge people the remaining user base becomes more and more detached from the actual diversity of public opinion. It becomes an echo chamber.

A perhaps even larger issue is that the people who are employed by these companies that operate platforms for people to connect and communicate are increasingly ideological partisans.

The graph actually shows the donations coming from the employees of these companies, they are not the donations of the companies themselves

As we can see above the employees at Google donated over nine times more money to the Democratic Party than they did the Republicans. The trend is similar for other big tech companies. Is it any real surprise that there seems to be a clear bias when these companies enforce their content policies on users? The bias held by the people who are creating these policies and enforcing them seems clear.

A left wing partisan might at this point say “So what? Reality has a left wing bias, if you don’t like it make your own social media site!”. Frankly I can’t blame them, if my political side of the spectrum had the kind of control over the big platforms used for discussion on the internet as they do I would be loathe to give it up as well. Things are starting to get hairy in the west though. More and more elections are being won by razor thin margins, the populations of western nations are ideologically split 50/50 and what is even more concerning is that both sides are increasingly seeing each other not as fellow citizens with opposing ideas but as existential threats to their way of life.

Democracy is based on the idea that people can discuss issues rationally and civilly and most of the time they can find a middle ground. Without free speech being respected and people of all ideological persuasions being allowed access to the places where these discussions are taking place then people simply raise the walls and use politics as a proxy battleground against their fellow citizens. When this happens citizens of a nation are no longer allies, they’re enemies struggling for domination over each other. Every win for one side is a loss for the other, and vice versa. The only way to find a solution is to talk to each other, and the only way to talk to each other is if free speech is not impeded by ideologically motivated attempts to remove people who the left find objectionable from the places where they can actually speak their mind.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. “ – Luke 11:17

There is no doubt most western nations at the moment are houses that are divided against themselves. If we don’t start talking and listening to each other then we’re going to find those houses collapsing over our heads, and probably sooner than we think.

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