Social Media

Your Social Media Post Does Not Have To Be Socially Useful

Critics of free speech use the same old arguments on new technologies.


The proper response to speech we don't like is not censorship but more speech, as the saying goes. But an increasing number of people seem to think things have gone too far. Lately, they argue, free speech has gotten out of control.

Russian attempts to meddle in the presidential election are part of the reason for this hand-wringing, but by no means the only reason. Social media enables extremism, according to its critics. It gives a platform to white nationalists. (It also gives a platform to opponents of white nationalism, but never mind.) It hijacks the reward centers of the brain, especially in teenagers. It is "ripping apart the social fabric" through "dopamine-driven feedback loops."

That last critique comes from none other than a former vice president at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya. Little wonder, then, that politicians and pundits also consider social media a clear and present danger. Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Ted Cruz, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson—all of them have suggested that social media needs to be reined in.

As Zach Weismuller noted recently in Reason, this is nothing new: "America's first multi-page newspaper was shut down after a single edition because it spread rumors about the sex lives of government officials and published what the colonial government described as 'uncertain reports,' or what we might today call 'fake news.' "

The latest to weigh in with such laments is Zeynep Tufekci, a professor and op/ed writer. In a piece in Wired magazine, Tufecki observes that "the capacity to spread ideas and reach an audience is no longer limited by access to expensive, centralized broadcasting infrastructure." Great news for free speech, right?

Well, not in her telling. People can now gorge on any kind of communication they want, without gatekeepers or guardians. But there are "no nutritional labels in this cafeteria… each post [is] just another slice of pie on the carousel." What's more, microtargeting makes it possible for people to direct their speech to specific audiences instead of broadcasting it to the entire world.

Thus, she argues, "John Stuart Mill's notion that a 'marketplace of ideas' will elevate the truth is flatly belied by the virality of fake news," and the "idea that more speech—more participation, more connection—constitutes the highest, most unalloyed good" is "a fallacy on its face."

We ought to understand free speech as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, she contends: "a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals" such as creating "a knowledgeable public," "holding powerful people and institutions accountable," and "fostering a healthy, rational, and informed debate." We need to regulate social media, she concludes, much the same way government regulated the auto industry by requiring "seat belts, airbags, emission controls," and so on.

This is a fairly common argument these days. The dean of the Yale Law School, Robert Post, frets that "the First Amendment seems to have been transformed into a straitjacket for our institutions of democratic governance." What America needs, in this view, is to protect speech only when it serves some other purpose.

This invites some obvious questions.

For instance, who gets to regulate social media for the public good—Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? An elite cadre of social-justice warriors? Who gets to decide what constitutes fake news—the man in the Oval Office who screams "Fake news!" at any story about him that is less than fawning?

Also: Which "societal ideals" should government foster? How about virtue? Plenty of religious conservatives—and not just Christian ones, either—think government should teach people to be good, as they define good.

Or how about patriotism? It doesn't seem far-fetched to think that the functionaries of the nation-state would consider reverence for the nation-state a useful ideal to instill.

Of course, these are utilitarian answers, so they suffer from the same shortcoming as the utilitarian argument they respond to. The greater flaw in the case for controlling what people may say on social media lies in the presumption, as Tufecki puts it, that free speech is merely a "vehicle" for achieving more important aims.

In other words: Your social-media post is permissible only to the extent that it serves somebody else's goal.

This is wrong—and not because our would-be overseers might pick the wrong goal (although they might). It is wrong because it treats people as means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves. To suggest that individuals have a right to free speech only when it is socially useful horribly misunderstands the entire concept of what it means to have a right at all.

Individual rights don't need a justification; they are their own justification. Free speech has intrinsic value, regardless of its instrumental value, because it accedes to the dignity and autonomy of the speaker.

The correct question about social media is therefore not what amount of speech people should be permitted to have on it. The correct question is what makes the nation's would-be censors think they have any say about the matter in the first place.

This column originally appeared in the Richmnd Times-Dispatch.