Freeze peach and the Internet
On the problem of giving everyone a voice in the public square
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
― John Milton , Areopagitica
In one of the most delicious online brouhahas in a long time, Elon Musk bought Twitter, and lots of people in the mainstream media are very, very concerned about it. The hysterics surrounding Elon Musk’s fairly tame pronouncements about what he planned on doing with the bird app have been like a gallery of mainstream media lunacy.
But although Musk has spent several weeks complaining about the status quo, speculating about bias, and provoking Twitter blue-checks and tech commentators into fits about content moderation and censorship, he has explained little about what he would do differently. He’s right about one thing: Twitter plays a central role in public discourse today. But it’s hardly the same as a public square, and content moderation can’t be reduced to “censorship.” What Musk and others portray as a battle over “free speech” is a proxy fight over who is entitled to attention.
DiResta begins by asserting three key points of this new ‘content moderation’ regime that is utterly re-defining speech in liberal societies:
Twitter is not the public square
Content moderation is not censorship
Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach
This ‘freedom of speech isn’t freedom of reach’ argument, which I’m fairly sure DiResta herself coined back in the heady post-Trump election days of 2016, is the linchpin to this entire worldview. It was then, and is now, utter nonsense.
Of course freedom of reach is freedom of speech. Anyone anywhere can say whatever they like in the zero-reach corner of their closets. So can the political dissidents that totalitarian states like Cuba routinely jail: they too can say whatever they like about the regime in the claustrophobic cells at Villa Marista. Every freedom of speech case from Zenger to Brandenburg involved the dissemination of controversial speech via some form of media with an audience: that’s clearly the entire point of the freedom. Speech without reach isn’t free speech; it’s just mumbling to yourself.
Not to say that lack of reach necessarily represents an abrogation of the freedom. Surely, many of those on Twitter who complain of their supposed ‘shadowbanning’ simply authored tweets that, well, nobody found very interesting. Twitter isn’t obligated to give you reach if user interest in your speech is low (as judged by their ranking algorithms at least). But the pro-content moderation view seems to be willfully naive about what speech (or the public forum) has become in the smartphone era.
Of course freedom of reach is freedom of speech. Speech without reach isn’t free speech; it’s just mumbling to yourself.
It’s simply not the case that freedom of speech is some legal binary switched between an abstract allow/not-allow state. Freedom of speech is now a continuous spectrum, a reach knob adjusted by algorithms and tweaked by the companies where speech happens and the audience is. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap she accuses her opponents of, which is thinking this some Greek agora where you can either set up your soapbox next to Socrates and blab to your heart’s content or not, and how far your voice carries amidst the tumult is irrelevant. There is indeed no agora anymore: it’s just what appears in most Twitter feeds, and algorithmic amplification (like it or not) is key to that freedom.
Which brings us to point (2) and the policy brakes we apply to that amplification: ‘content moderation’. In order to defend moderation and assert that it’s absolutely, definitely not a form of censorship, DiResta indulges in a very common form of deflection: alleging that the contrary view is simply absurd and ahistorical.
Since the advent of more active content moderation on Twitter and other online platforms, the prototypical public square has been retconned—particularly by Musk’s supporters in the United States—into a haven for absolute free speech. This is not accurate. The real public square has always been moderated.
This is a very common trope, framing any doubt about the censorship regime as necessarily advocating (naively) for absolute free speech.
DiResta is in fact retconning a retcon, in the sense that she’s gearing up for battle against a non-existent army of opinion: It’s hard to read Elon’s mind given his colorful tweeting style, but the general sentiment of those (such as myself) that would love to see Elon shake Twitter up, is not some absolutist free-speech claim.
In fact, nobody who’s ever been involved directly with moderation inside social media companies has seriously advocated for absolute free speech of the pure 4chan flavor. As I spent an entire chapter describing in my memoir Chaos Monkeys, Facebook was already doing beyond-the-law content moderation as early as 2011 (and presumably before I arrived on the scene, as the team was already scaled up). That level of ‘moderation’ isn’t really in question by anyone whose opinion matters.
Let’s just state this once and for all to hopefully move the debate up from the mutual strawmanning level where it’s currently mired: nobody sane is asking for absolute free speech. Having to constantly rehash the point that no public forum possesses absolute free speech, like it’s some thundering assertion, is a waste of time and probably just disingenuous grandstanding anyhow.
Look: nobody wants dick pics or beheading videos in their feeds; also, such content is pretty unambiguous and easy to discern, thus easy to squelch. Nobody wants CSAM or grooming behavior online either, and everybody sane wants all that gone and the people involved thrown in the slammer. We all agree that the existing ‘hate speech’ standard around Brandenberg v. Ohio, whereby ‘imminent lawless action’ (i.e. you’re threatening to harm someone, or a prelude to violence like doxxing) should be prohibited and grounds for booting off the platform.
There. We’ve enumerated the baseline content moderation (err, censorship) regime that anyone sane who lives in the real world can agree on. Can we all address the real debate now instead of the bullshit one?
The real issue that the consensus pro-censorship crowd will never directly address (at least whenever I’ve brought it up with them), and which is what’s left after all the strawmanning and prefatory throat-clearing around the obviously dumb arguments is over, is the following:
Do you think freedom of speech includes the right to say and believe obnoxious stupid shit that’s almost certainly false, or do you feel platforms have the responsibility to arbitrate truth and regulate online behavior for the sake of some supposed greater good?
That’s the real question here, and everything else is either willfully (or accidentally) naive online posturing.
If you think the former, that dumb and even offensive speech—Alex Jones going on about chemtrails making the frogs gay or people who think the COVID vaccine is a Bill Gates mind-control plot—is protected speech, then you’re on the Elon side of this debate. You fundamentally believe that unhinged-seeming speech is protected as a principle, and also is epistemologically more sound as general policy. Who knows? Today’s heresy may well be tomorrow’s orthodoxy. While most weird beliefs are just wrong, occasionally it’s just an early intimation of what’s very possibly true (cf. the COVID lab-leak hypothesis, the Hunter Biden laptop).
1A (like 2A in its own way) is an expensive form of insurance for the sake of guarding against the worst-case scenario of excessive conformity that leads to social ruin. The real question is if we’re still willing to pay that high insurance premium to guard against a purely hypothetical danger.
If you don’t agree with that insurance, if you think the platforms should be putting their fingers on the scales and declaring this or that eruption of the collective hive mind to be acceptable (or not) for the sake of some greater good or capital ‘T’ Truth, then you’re on the anti-Elon/DiResta side of the debate. If you think that, conversely, we must put up with the Alex Jones bullshit for the sake of the greater good, you’re on the other side of the debate.
That’s it, that’s the real dividing line here. Quibbling over the precise content policy in the pro-content moderation view is just haggling over implementation details, and essentially ceding the field to that side of the debate.
The position in DiResta’s piece is the consensus MSM take from ‘serious’ people on the topic, now and probably forever in the pages of The Atlantic or The New York Times (publications that themselves resent their demotions from public square to just another set of onlookers on the sidelines). It’s squishy and ill-defined enough to be adaptable to future scandals, such that it’ll never seem inconsistent even as it makes contradictory claims around this or that moderated media cycle. The Oracle of Truth remains stubbornly undiscovered, so it’ll be epistemological improv at best.
It’s not much of a policy roadmap for the platforms either—Twitter still needs to make case-by-case calls subject to howling mob of the moment—but it does give the platforms carte blanche to down-rank and ‘moderate’ at will. It’s a finger-in-the-dam approach, but it’s the one that platforms cowed by the outcry have implemented; the real Supreme Court that matters around free speech will still preside from closed conference rooms inside tech companies, subject to the internal chorus of their employees. The real divide here is whether you greet that vision with cautious hope or outright horror.
Which brings us to the last point the threefold way of The New Free Speech: that Twitter isn’t the public forum, and as such shouldn’t be treated with the sacrosanct respect we typically imbue anything First Amendment-related. Even Yishan Wong, former Reddit CEO and longtime techie, made a similar argument in a very long and worthwhile Twitter thread (of which this tweet is a part):
The thing is…there has never been a public debate as Yishan is describing here, just as there’s never been some idealized public square as DiResta also invokes.
I’m not quite sure what ‘democracy dies in’ (pace WaPo’s claim that it’s the darkness resulting from not subscribing to their publication), but it’s pretty clear what conditions our democracy was born in: the most vicious, ribald, scabrous, offensive, and often violent tumult of the Founders’ era, which makes modern Twitter look like a Mormon picnic by comparison. I made this point in WIRED ages ago, about how the Founding Fathers would all have been anon-account Twitter shitposters now, utterly unlike the pompous wokescolds that now populate the media. Everyone invoking some fusty idea of ‘debate’ or even a healthy ‘marketplace of ideas’ is citing bygone utopias that never were, and never will be.
Our American public square, including and especially the periods of maximum democracy creation, has never been more than a bareknuckle brawl happening in the middle of a food fight surrounded by a jeering mob.
Our American public square, including and especially the periods of maximum democracy creation, has never been more than a bareknuckle brawl happening in the middle of a food fight surrounded by a jeering mob. To try and engineer something else either via immature ML technology that isn’t up to the task (and won’t be any time soon) or hamhanded policies that are obvious ploys to favor one’s own side, is delusional and futile.
To get meta for a moment, the debate over ‘content moderation’ is itself another battle in the evergreen squabble for American political power we’ve had non-stop 24/7 the Declaration of Independence was signed (or even before, since Zenger decided to troll a corrupt British governor in print). To cede ‘the public square’ to the ‘content moderators’ is to cede our American birthright of constant and cantankerous rebellion against the status quo. Some countries have real free speech, and some countries have monarchs on their coins. It would be very odd indeed that a country in the first category, which also birthed the very Internet, suddenly thinks the path to more democracy is more censorship.
Benjamin Franklin, when asked about the result of the 1787 constitutional convention, reputedly answered “a republic if you can keep it.” That republic is far more threatened by indulging our collective craving for safety via mass censorship than the opposite approach, which is unfettered debate coupled with the uncomfortable task of sharing the public square with our despised political enemies. We might just not have the stomach for it anymore.
I’m not specifically piling on Renee here, whom I know and with whom I’ve debated this point for years on end now. More that this piece is a very articulate and succinct expression of where the establishment consensus on ‘free speech’ has landed. It’s that general view, whose many incarnations one can find everywhere from the Times op-ed section to the Twitter feed of your favorite bien-pensant pundit, that I’m critiquing here. DiResta herself is probably on the reasonable end of that class of opinion.