Social Media

The Future of Free Speech on Social Media Looks Grim

Social-media platforms have not so much "disrupted" the old media gatekeepers as they have introduced a watered-down version of the same concept.


Nan Palermo/Flickr

Reddit has suffered a rocky year, having weathered months of censorship concerns and subreddit shutdowns. Recent revelations that co-founder and current CEO Steve Huffman was surreptitiously editing Reddit posts critical of him have thrown the community into still more chaos. But Reddit is far from the only social network struggling with the tension between speech and sensitivity. Similar snafus at other services have been dominating recent headlines: there's "fake news" on Facebook, "hate speech" on Twitter, and the continued scourge of rude comment sections.

Social-media platforms are finding it harder to mouth free speech platitudes (and enjoy the corresponding cultural benefits) while at the same time actively curating a sanitized media feed. Yet to not curate or censor is to be accused of aiding and abetting a parade of horribles ranging from online jihadis to the "alt-right."

The so-called "Reddit Revolt" has pitted a coterie of left-leaning "social justice warriors" against a ragtag, right-leaning, and rambunctious crew who call themselves free-speech activists. Tensions between Reddit administrators and certain subreddits—most notably, the pro-Trump subreddit called r/The_Donald and a now-banned conspiracy theory subreddit called r/pizzagate that believes high-level world leaders operate and patronize international child-trafficking rings—have been high over the past year, as these communities' impolitic and often impolite content raised the hackles of the website's generally more liberal operators. Where Huffman, or u/spez as he is known on Reddit, really crossed a line with certain Redditors is when he admitted to amending user comments that were critical of him to appear like they were criticizing moderators of r/The_Donald instead. While some have been able to forgive Huffman's faux pas as an immature but benign troll against a community that constantly causes problems, others have decided to leave the platform all together in search of more censorship-averse websites.

Of course, internet companies like Reddit and Twitter are private corporations that can run their businesses however they see fit. If that includes censorship, so be it. Users are free to seek or build a better alternative—as users of the still relatively-obscure Voat or Gab platforms have—or just stop using the service altogether.

Yet a social network is only as valuable as, well, its network. If everyone you know insists on using a certain service, you're probably going to use that one, too. Even if you don't personally use a particular network, if enough people in a country or planet do use it, then its policies and priorities could have a major impact on your life.

And then there's the value of "free speech" on a conceptual level. If you hold free speech to be an ideal worth fighting for, you will push platforms to protect it, even if it is costly or inconvenient.

This is a conundrum that we didn't have to seriously deal with for a long time. In their early days, social-media platforms were "open" merely by virtue of their limited scale. Far fewer people used these websites, and the early adopters who did were largely internet-hardened veterans of forums and IRC channels who were not exactly allergic to a good flame war.

For years, social media platforms touted this openness as a key cultural and design feature of their services. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo famously characterized the microblogging platform as "the free speech wing of the free speech party." Mark Zuckerberg marketed Facebook as a "place where people across the world share their views and ideas." And of course Reddit has long positioned itself as a "free speech site with very few exceptions"—even when said speech was personally revolting to its operators. Only criminal acts, "doxing," IP violations, and perhaps targeted harassment were grounds for platform intervention—and even then, in a limited fashion. Other than that, users were expected to generally work things out among themselves.

This ethos of voluntary collaboration and largely laissez faire moderation characterized early optimism about our odds with "Web 2.0," as perhaps best evidenced by Time magazine's pick for the 2006 Person of the Year: "YOU," meaning all of the people who were commenting and vlogging and sharing and liking the mass of newly-generated digital content for the first time. Our future was no longer shaped primarily by "conflict or great men," wrote Time's Lev Grossman. Rather, our destiny laid in "community and collaboration on a scale never seen before" and "the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing…that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes."

It was a pretty picture. Unshackled by the physical restraints of paper, ink, and film, a new breed of dynamic infovores would to produce a plethora of reports and opinions on events around the clock. Walls would be broken down and new perspectives could finally see the light. Media gatekeepers would be more of a luxury—for style and sophistication—than a necessity to deliver a solid product. Children could learn Greek on YouTube! New businesses could be launched from a blog! The revolution—at least those amenable to U.S. foreign policy goals—would be live-Tweeted! Don't like it? Don't click. Or maybe start a petition if you're really fired up.

Initially, the social Internet seemed to deliver the promise of pure online voluntaryism so long theorized by libertarians. And in terms of delivering content and communication, it's worked pretty well. We have more access to more media on more subjects than ever before.

But it is clear now that the relative harmony of early online platforms did not scale very well. As more people with radically diverse beliefs and backgrounds joined in, clashes and controversy were sure to follow. Today, one person's "free speech" is too often another's "bigotry."

One decade on from Grossman's love letter to the social web, we can we can observe "the few" struggling mightily to wrest power back from "the many"—and apparently being heartily cheered on by the crowds in the process. Many of the new features that social media networks roll out these days are tools for blocking controversial content and promoting more sanitized fare. Administrators act less like neutral platform providers, blind and agnostic to the value of user content, and more like editorial curators. In a way, social-media platforms have not so much "disrupted" the old media gatekeepers as they have merely introduced a watered-down version of the same concept.

Perhaps social media's evolution from darling of decentralization to glorified kindergarten cop should have been obvious from the get go. Technology is only a tool. It can amplify or dampen user taste, but rarely fundamentally change it. If 40 percent of your core user base supports censoring certain types of content, you will probably need to build tools that will censor certain types of content.

The vision of a web that is fundamentally open and voluntary was a beautiful one, but perhaps one that erroneously projected its proponents' tastes and backgrounds onto more humans than it actually appealed. Those who value the rough-and-tumble world of an uncensored Internet can still find that in particular private havens across the web. But web Balkanization is here to stay, and most people will choose a sanitized version of digital reality.

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  1. And infogalactic instead of wikipedia.

    1. Note to everyone posting comments here: it’s okay to have a polite, civil discussion of the matters raised in this article, as long as no one mentions the outrageous “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated judge in our nation’s leading criminal troll and “satire” case. See the documentation at:

      Not only should the “opinion” of this eccentric judge not be mentioned (who here would dare to defend it?), but there should also be no discussion whatsoever of the case in question, or of its possible pertinence to our developing awareness, over the past seven years or so, that the Internet should not be as “free” as certain individuals would like it to be. Absolute discretion should be observed regarding any such matters, as I am sure the “free speech community” (ha-ha-ha) fully understands.

  2. and the continued scourge of rude comment sections.

    What the fuck are you talking about?

    1. Well, a scourge is a whip with multiple separate strands, or threads. Each one inflicting slightly less force than a single unified strand, but causing more pain in agregate. It was used in floggings.

      I think it means we’re supposed to be commenting from a golf course.

      1. I always thought that was called a cat o’ nine tails. Or just different names for the same thing?

        1. I thought it was a Decepticon with a metallic Fu Manchu face.

    2. Oh, piss off!

    3. I was seriously expecting that link to point to “#comment”.

    4. Christ, what an asshole!

    5. Fuck this guy!


  3. Social media and platforms like YouTube displaced the old media and new alternatives will make Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube into the new-old media if they drive enough people away. Let them restrict speech and destroy their own businesses if they choose to do so, people who value open and free expression will just go elsewhere which is fine.

    1. Yeah, exactly. At least until Network Neutrality is trashed (coming soon), everyone has access to as much bandwidth as they’re willing to pay for, and nobody gets confined to slower or defective channels or shut out completely because the government or some corporate elite doesn’t like them. If you don’t like ‘fake news’ on Facebook, read it somewhere else, like the Washington Post or the New York Times. Or don’t read it at all. We should see a wide range of discursive venues suitable for every taste and category of prejudice.

  4. And the Berkeley free speech movement finally bears fruit – – – —

  5. Have you tried to have a calm, rational discussion with self-described “social justice” advocates? It doesn’t work. You can’t have civil discourse with someone who’s first principle is that you inherit the moral weight of your ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background.

    1. Yup. Look up Laurie Penny.

    2. Thanks for mansplaining that to us.

      1. How horribly bigoted of you to assumeCeci is a man. Xhe could be anything.

    3. It’s beyond that; they believe that any deviation from their own strict ideology is ‘hate speech’ and they equate language with violence. So disagreeing with them is literally considered an act of violence, no different than assault.

      You cannot have a discussion with someone who sincerely believes your words constitute assault.

      1. Or even that stating facts about them is “assault” and it’s illegal for you to refuse to tell them where you learned these facts.

      2. It’s true that I can not have a discussion with an ignorant fool. What I can do is refuse to accept their rediculous premise and explain why I am doing so. I know that doing so won’t change anything, but it’s probably legal. I would prefer to just throat punch them and kick them in whatever private parts they possess, just so they can discover what assault really means. But the law frowns on that type of behavior.

  6. “CEO Dick Costolo famously characterized the microblogging platform as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Mark Zuckerberg marketed Facebook as a “place where people across the world share their views and ideas.”

    Here’s the the thing. These people don’t give a shit about free speech. They care about a type of free speech; one in which agrees with their views. What they’re saying is ‘a place to come and be like minded’. In their conceptualization of what constitutes free speech differing views – especially those they disagree with – doesn’t enter their mind. So when something like Donald Trump’s election happens, they react accordingly. What we’re seeing with FB, Twitter, Reddit, Google and youtube is PRECISELY what the founding fathers meant by ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ They could not foresee social media but they understood the human condition and this simple but powerful axiom that clearly applies in contemporary times. If social media is a microcosm of the world at large, to believe in free speech takes a certain mindset (it does take some courage to be able to tolerate a view you don’t agree with) I’m afraid too many people are unwilling to accept. Or, at least, they need to be made aware that there’s no such thing as ‘balancing free speech’. Here we can conclude free speech is all or nothing; a zero sum calculation. Because today your neighbour is silence, tomorrow it can be you.

    1. silenced. I think it’s because of grammar errors Reason is falling short.

      1. I blame the infiltration of the site by Canadian sleeper eh-gents.

    2. Noted former fanfic writer and gay gadfly David Gerrold notes that, “When I post a comment, it’s an invitation to agree with me.”

      Even if he’s wrong, as he is 98% of the time.

  7. The only websites I actually utilize for social interaction are: Reddit, Reason, and Politico.

    To be fair, has anyone actually tried having a reasonable discussion in the comments section at Politico? It’s literally almost impossible.

    1. Can’t be any more impossible than Huffpo.

      Balko’s Agitator community tried to relocate there, and man… you just can’t discuss issues over there. It killed the community pretty quick.

      1. True. I had though both communities were pretty bad when they were based on the Disqus system, but I actually think switching over to Facebook accounts has made both websites inferior platforms of actual discussion.

        1. thought*

        2. Prior to ESPN switching to FB, its soccer threads were not that bad. Sure, there were clowns (like all places) but they were offset by a couple of knowledgable people you can discuss the sport with in a rational manner.

          Now? Forget about it.

          1. You’re a soccer fan? Favorite teams?

            1. AC Milan.

              1. You?

                1. Swansea City. Although I’m a fanatical follower of Marcelo Bielsa. I was really sad when Swansea didn’t get him and then when Bielsa decided to not manage Lazio.

                  1. Interesting cat this Bielsa. I have no idea what happened at Lazio. Didn’t he just quit after a week or so? Why doe you like him?

                    1. I’m a huge fan of his relentless style of pressing combined with a much faster paced, vertical passing game when it’s called for, but also an ability to move the ball around with short passing. Interestingly, when he managed Marseille, his team was 2nd in the league in both average passing distance AND passing accuracy. Also, I love just how crazy he is.

                      Yeah, apparently the owner of Lazio back tracked on some of the promises he had made Bielsa so he just left. Bielsa expects honesty and an element of loyalty, probably to a fault.

                    2. Oh, and his 3-3-1-3 formation is fucking awesome to watch.

                    3. Yeh, I’ve seen the formation or variation thereof in Serie A for quite some time now.

                    4. Unfortunately I rarely get to see anything other than a 4-4-2, or 4-2-3-1 in the PL. I love the more abnormal formations personally.

                    5. Sort of. Guardiola going to City will definitely shake that up a bit; he and Conte at Chelsea have made extensive use of 3-man back line formations this season, for example.

                      More generally, between Pep, Conte, Klopp, and Pochettino, the PL is more interesting tactically than it’s ever been.

                    6. Yeah, Bielsa is really a godfather of the modern game. All the coaches doing high pressing these days – Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino, Sampaoli, etc – tend to cite him as an influence.

        3. Switching to Facebook based comments is a great way to get me to stop posting.

          I would be fired for some of the comments I post here at Reason, if they were posted to Facebook under my real name.

          1. And it wouldn’t be the sweariness of my comments here either, it would be the failure to abjectly bow at the Church of Climate Change that would do me in….. And I’m an avowed lukewarmer, but to the true believers, we’re worse than the full on deniers….

            1. You should consider yourself lucky, heretics used to get burned at the stake.

              1. Modern heretics are much better armed and the witch-burners of this generation are giant cowardly babies.

              2. It still happens. But only if the kommissar has saved up enough carbon credits to strike a match.

              3. If climate change folks try to burn you at the stake, remind them of how much carbon that will be introducing into the atmosphere, then run away making Zoidberg noises as they stop to reconsider how to kill you…

          2. Agreed. I have a political life and a professional life. They do not mingle.

            1. Ditto, this

          3. Heh, just make a fake Facebook account. That’s what I do with tinder to conceal it from my wife, and to conceal her from my other wife.

          4. Disqus or Facebook login? I can’t be bothered.

      2. That was a damn shame. The Agitator comments were great. A bit like Reason, but more polite (mostly) and less crowded.

  8. Let me find my shocked face… it’s just SJW attacks all the way down.

    If one touches the third rail of, for example, race they will find themselves in a whole bunch of trouble. See John Derbyshire as an example for his frank (racist?) article about not going into certain sections of the city, and how blacks view whites.

    Or Larry Summers about science and women. And he is a lefty!

  9. “and the continued scourge of rude comment sections.”

    Again. Missing the point.

    I don’t know where this belief that debate must be ‘clean’ and ‘sanitized’ came from but it probably, if I were to guess, developed by people who don’t practice what the preach. Or don’t read history all that much. If you observe how great minds have debated one another, it wasn’t always tea and biscuits (Machiavelli was known to be fiery or witness the great arguments between Burke and Paine). Or just listen to people like Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith on the radio; they can barely contain themselves on air so imagine in private!

    This thing of in the ‘public discourse it must be civil’ is noble and even required in some cases, but to call it a scourge is bull shit and runs directly and diametrically opposed to LIBERTY.

    Now fuck off.

      1. Easily one of their top 10. Brilliant stuff.

    1. I do think there should be certain etiquette observed in reasonable discussion, but as a matter of etiquette only, not policy. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to locate places around the internet where you can actually have reasonable discussion without the conversation quickly devolving into useless ad hominem.

      1. Yes that is true. But also true is the idea that unreasonable discussion should also be always allowed…

    2. I’m not a big user of social media or comment sections besides this here. But I think that a certain kind of rudeness/unpleasantness is a big part of what makes this comment section, and a few other open forum type sites I used to participate in, work so well. It serves a dual role, making sure that the people who stick around actually get it, and (to a lesser extent) encourages people to behave. Though, as we’ve seen, one determined person can still fuck it up pretty good.

      1. Like assholes who talk about sportsball.

  10. Look at Geert Vilders. The Dutch government has effectively criminalized criticizing their immigration policies. Here though we have a move evolved approach. Criticism will simply be automatically deleted across all platforms. I look forward to many scintillating online conversations running the gamut from kittens to ponies.

  11. Mrs. O’ Sullivan is consistently Reason‘s sharpest contributor. Thank you for publishing her and more like this please.

  12. This comment section is a cesspool of vitriol and filth. Reason needs to shut it down. And if they refuse to do the job, I’m sure Preet will be happy to pull the plug on it.

    1. D+ Troll harder.

    2. Shut up, Alice

  13. It is pretty obvious what went wrong; the tech industry is filled with fascist progressives who don’t care about freedom or free speech. I don’t care how committed to freedom someone like Zuckerberg claims to be, it doesn’t matter if his company is filled with nasty progressives who view silencing non progressives as their moral duty.

    You are only as free as the society you live in allows you to be. The government can make you less free, but you can only be as free as society at large is tolerant. Society’s tolerance is the ceiling, government’s tolerance is the floor.

    1. So we’re essentially being compacted as the ceiling falls in on us and the floor keeps rising.

  14. I’m surprised that the article didn’t mention trolls as a factor in this at all. They don’t add value, and can drive people off. It’s not always about civil vs uncivil discourse. Sometimes it’s about people wanting to talk about turkey without having it devolve into rants about the Armenian genocide EVERY SINGLE TIME.

    1. Sometimes it’s about people wanting to talk about turkey without having it devolve into rants about the Armenian genocide EVERY SINGLE TIME.

      Srsly, can’t we just discuss sandwiches without bringing up genocide?

      1. You’d think so, but NOOOOO.
        And that’s nothing compared to the hordes that you’d get for mentioning Taiwan or Tibet.

    2. One man’s troll is another man’s marginalized dissident.

    3. Whether they add value or not is subjective. If nothing else, someone might find them comical.

  15. If you want free speech then twitter is not your place and nor is facebook. Gab, which can be found at is wide open. I’ve been a member after being on their waiting list for about a week or two. Free speech everywhere there. I suggest you all try it.

    1. I got approved in about 20 minutes, but that was several weeks ago when gab first opened. What’s your handle?

      1. I am P. Mathis @cavalier973

    2. Free speech is worthless without an audience.

  16. It’s almost like building social networking applications as walled gardens instead of open protocols like earlier internet applications was a big mistake.

    1. It is also almost like anti trust law might matter in the 21st century.

      1. Nah, they can collapse on their own easily enough, if the popular will exists. We’ll see what happens with the retaliatory Kellogg’s and Buzzfeed advertiser boycotts.

        At any rate, any replacement that has some central authority is going to get infected by progs as well, it’s how they operate. P2P, janky as it may be, is critical for the future.

      2. This.

        Consolidation is the problem. FB and Twitter are going to become the new Pravdas of our times… and many of the people who do value liberty are blinded by their naive, dogmatic insistence that “they are private property so they can censor as they please”.

        The first rule is to protect liberty in the big picture. In extremely rare cases, that requires limiting it in the small picture. This is one of those cases. We need to break up FB and TWTR like we broke up Ma Bell.

        1. Stop using them. My way is cheaper too.

        2. There is no first rule. You can’t trump the rights of the owners of reddit with your own on their own site. There are other sites to go to that are far more libertairan in their respect for people to express their opinions. Sure there aren’t as many people there, but that’s why it’s called entertainment for the masses. Reddit, twitter, etc always have to satisfy the lowest common denominator to make a profit. It’s simple economics.

  17. I’m interested in checking out Gab, but ultimately I think a fully open-source, uncensored network will be the answer to this problem.

    1. I remember USENET a decade ago. The amount of spam made it pretty unusable.

      1. that was about 10 years after it was usable or useful.

  18. the continued scourge of rude comment sections

    This was specifically directed at us, yes?

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  20. There is no free speech on social media as that is private property. The owners of those properties get to decide what is or isnt published. Whatever I disagree with regarding Reason they do seem to be true believers in free speech and they are a real standout in that respect.

    1. Except, Suthenboy, I have heard a lot of talk from government officials recently, in a variety of places, about how they are “pointing out” to social media sites what the sites’ rules provide with respect to “extreme” or “inappropriate” postings, and how the government “expects” the sites to “enforce their own rules.” When the government begins pressuring private entities with respect to what forms of speech the private entities are “expected” to allow, the First Amendment is implicated.

      1. When the government begins pressuring private entities with respect to what forms of speech the private entities are “expected” to allow, the First Amendment is implicated.

        In the libertarian fantasy world maybe. The courts have never made such a ruling, especially where “pressure” is confined to politely asking and even the threat of “naming and shaming”. All Merkel had to do with Zuck was politely ask.

        Then you get to Operation Choke Point level stuff, which corporations are terrified of — also not ruled against by any courts.

    2. The concept of freedom of speech is more broad than just the legal implementation of it.

  21. Indeed, free speech doesn’t apply to private property.

    Progs love pointing this out when dissidents threaten to pop their groupthink bubble:

    Sadly, censorship of online discussions is only going to get worse as more sites outsource their comment sections to centralized social media platforms due to the allure of free APIs.

  22. There’s still the option of opting out. No Reddit for me.

  23. the only threat to free speech are “Speech Codes” imposed by the owners of social media and academics in their Ivory Towers.

  24. oh, forgot the Dimocrats vote to repeal the 1st amendment so they could set up Political speech restrictions, a violation of their oath to the constitution.

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  27. Freedom of speech is a guideline on a -private- website. What is the big deal? If reddit wants to limit topics and discussion it has every right. It is completely in the private domain. If you don’t like it you are free to start your on reddit equivalent site, and there are currently a few to choose from. I don’t like the trend, but you can’t say that it’s “wrong” .

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  29. I respect the comments given by author here but I think we should not write it off here.

    The value of “free speech” on a conceptual level. If you hold free speech to be an ideal worth fighting for, you will push platforms to protect it, even if it is costly or inconvenient.

    Be It Reddit or Twitter, The Future of Free Speech on Social Media does not look to be so grim and end users will always remain winners always.

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