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.

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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 Tufecki, 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.

NEXT: How "Rights" Are Like Superscript -1

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  1. Mine are. If you download my social media posts, then change the file type to .zip you can open my post to get a screwdriver.

    1. Surely Mr. Hinkle doesn’t believe that the interventions of “Pussy Riot” or the “Yes Men” should be allowed by any responsible government, or that criminal “satire” is some sort of expressive tool protected by the so-called American First Amendment? See documentation to the contrary at:

      https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

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  2. I’ve heard that it is illegal to post somebody else’s tool.

    1. If you are underage, it can be illegal to post your own tool. 🙂

  3. Scratch a proggie, unmask an authoritarian.

    Here’s to hate speech.

    1. Here’s to hate speech.

      Huzzah!

    2. It’s amazing isn’t it?

    3. Indeed. As I’ve taken to saying lately, the truth is hate speech to those that hate the truth.

  4. We need to regulate social media

    Someone has never read 1A.

    “the First Amendment seems to have been transformed into a straitjacket for our institutions of democratic governance.”

    The US is not a democracy. And freedom of speech is freedom of speech. Deal with it.

    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.

    Anti-freedom of speech people understand it. They are just tyrants.

    1. the First Amendment seems to have been transformed into a straitjacket for our institutions of democratic governance

      Well, duh. The whole purpose of the 1A (and the rest of the BoR) was to point out that some things are off-limits to majority rule. It was specifically intended to be a “straitjacket” on the power of the state to interfere with fundamental rights.

  5. 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.”

    Well Tufecki bad, sister. No amount of regulations can keep people from being stupid, assholes, or stupid assholes.

    1. Fake news has always existed and always been popular. The difference now is that more people have the ability to find out what’s fake and what isn’t more easily (if they actually care and can be bothered to put some effort in).

      1. Exactly, and very obvious after a nanosecond’s reflection which makes me wonder what’s really going on here, as if that’s not totally obvious as well.

  6. “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.”

    But what about those of us who believe the government DID NOT have the right to regulate the auto industry? And what’s worse by allowing those regulations is now we are getting a regulation that every vehicle (by a date I do not know off the top of my head) must be equipped with back-up cameras because one idiot ran over their kid. One regulation is just a slippery slop to many, many others, often more ridiculous than the previous.

    1. For years I drove a 1987 Acura. It had three lap belts in the back, mostly aluminum construction, and no airbags. I’d be SO DEAD if I crashed into a guardrail at 70mph.

      Incidentally, it also had a third taillight. Apparently it was mandated in ’86, but I have a ’92 without one, and another friend’s pickup is a ‘92.5 model with the only change being the addition of a high-mounted tail light. A lot of auto manufacturers were already installing them well before they were required, because they’re really an excellent addition, and the market was demanding them.

    2. All 2018 models must have the distracting and useless backup camera expense…

  7. Lately, they argue, free speech has gotten out of control.

    I would suggest that such people immigrate to one of any number of countries that already punishes thought crimes and leave ours alone.

  8. “The correct question is what makes the nation’s would-be censors think they have any say about the matter in the first place.”

    Ask Google or Facebook. They own the software you run. They are free to filter the flow of information as they see fit.

    1. They are free to filter the flow of information as they see fit.

      Yes, right up until the government starts telling them which information to filter. Which is what this article is about.

      1. “Yes, right up until the government starts telling them which information to filter.”

        Or not to filter. I wouldn’t be surprised if the US government was behind Google’s recent decision to cease their cooperation with the Chinese government in filtering internet content.

  9. The Brits have been getting their first exposure to Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, defender of freedom of expression and arch enemy of the cultural marxist crowd and this interview has been getting a lot of attention there.

    Apparently the “interviewer” has a reputation as a fully paid up SJW and got taken to the woodshed by Peterson on national TV:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54

    Among the many highlights, the reponse of Peterson to Newman’s question on freedom of expression just after the 21 min mark, is a joy to behold.

    1. Hey thanks Alcibiades. I have never heard of Jordan Peterson but he absolutely owns the leftist narrative.

    2. This is an interesting debate, thanks for sharing. I applaud his patience. The constant interjections and reliance on pathos and provocation by the interviewer would drive me insane. It used to be only bleeding heart, well-meaning anti-gunners that could make me so angry by completely ignoring facts and rationality and simply screaming over me.

      1. @loveconstitution, silver

        No problem, Newman’s a terrible interviewer, didn’t come to the interview prepared, didn’t listen to anything he said and obviously out of her depth intellectually.

        Someone’s already tried the all-women company approach and it didn’t end well. Just one data point, but nevertheless…

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/fem…..lict-.html

        1. Even if she was prepared, Peterson really articulates the flaws in lefty ideology without really pausing much.

          I don’t even think Newman caught Peterson’s point that women could start their own company and make it all feminine to completely disprove the evidence that different traits are used by successful companies.

          I thought businesses that are run with more feminine traits are called charities?

          1. Exactly, the interview was really a contest between; “reason vs. feelings, logic vs. emotion, empiricism vs. a priori posturing

          2. This is how bad it is in the UK re freedom of [removed]from Breibart but the report is apparently accurate):

            http://www.breitbart.com/londo…..ssion=true

            1. *freedom of [removed]no idea what happened there)

              1. Weird, won’t accept the phrase “freedom of expression”

                1. It was the squirrels.

    3. …so what you’re saying….

  10. I suggest as a first step, we shut down all comments on reason.com. Other than nuking from space, it’s the only way to be sure.

    1. we’ll start with your comment comrade.

  11. She sure does seem nostalgic for the authoritarian approach employed by goons in her native land.

  12. It gives a platform to white nationalists. (It also gives a platform to opponents of white nationalism, but never mind.
    I think you are giving social media too much credit. Most posts never get any significant reactions out of anyone.

    I for one don’t use Twitter, so all Trump’s tweets and his lefty opposition followers get zero reactions out of me.

  13. Fakebook came up with the idea for users to vote on what is a trusted news source.

    1. laughs in 4chan

  14. As recently as 20 years ago, people like Tufecki and Post were complaining about media concentration, limited numbers of news outlets, and the Big Evil Corporations who “controlled” the news media “forcing” the American people to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity while suppressing “dissenting” and “alternative” views.

    Now there is no media concentration, the number of news outlets has increased, no one is “forced” to listen to or read anyone, and the broadest imaginable spectrum of dissenting and alternative views exists. And people like Tufecki and Post now are upset about that.

    In each instance, their real complaint is that people they do not like are being allowed to have a say.

    1. And that those people have listeners or viewers or whatever.

    2. They are all nostalgic for that relative short wra when the country received its news from a few sources homogenous in viewpoint. The days of the so-called common narrative put forth by people who were mostly like them in outlook.

  15. Well said.

  16. It’s funny how the obvious slips by me sometimes. I had never considered the idea that statists think of only the end goal of a perfect society (whatever that is) and that individuals only matter as a means to that end. But it sure makes instant sense, explains all sorts of puzzles. Doesn’t explain why statists have so lost sight of people, as individuals, in favor of just plain society, without any regard for what makes up society. But it does explai

    1. Damn. Upgraded this laptop to Ubuntu 17.10 from 17.04 and the touchpad turned into a damned sensitive snowflake. I have to type like a ballerina en pointe to avoid relocating the cursor or clicking buttons by mistake.

      Anyway, was goin[just did it agai[and again]n, relocating the cursor one line up]g to say this this sure describes statists in one swell foop.

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