Freedom vs Speech in the Social Media Age

9 min read

Social media make it easy to share our opinions with others and the world. Individuals’ power of speech is greater than ever. But at the same time our real freedom of speech has declined. We are more fearful of being punished for saying the wrong thing because there are ever more people with the power to make us pay for infringing their moral codes.

Two main features of social media have brought us to here. First, automatic universal publication makes previously private speech accessible to everyone in the world. Second, the ease with which counter-speech can be weaponized by self-organising vigilantes to punish and silence those they deem immoral.

I. Automatic Universal Publication
What was once a difficult endeavour – to bring our words to the attention of others – is becoming difficult to avoid. The ubiquity of social media means that interpersonal speech and its proxies (such as 'likes') is subject to global publication and indexing by search engines. Even if we are very careful with all our privacy settings, our speech may still be published by the devices and apps of those around us. It is becoming impossible to guarantee a private conversation.

This matters because the way we express our ideas and opinions in conversation with specific people is not how we set out our thoughts to the world, to strangers in general. The practical difference in the labours required for speech and publication used to track and support that distinction.

Speech is improvised and ephemeral. On the one hand it has no substance in itself but dissolves into the air and fallible memories of those around you. On the other hand it matters greatly as a means of working out and testing what you should think about something by trying out different positions, reasons, and phrasings. That gives it a dialectical character - you engage in it with other people in an effort to make progress together. It is often part of an ongoing relationship in which the parties know each other, bear some good will, and have a common knowledge and context to relate to. What is said can be directly addressed to the other's perspective and concerns. Your mistakes and their misunderstandings can both be corrected as you go along - and without being held against you.

Publication in contrast is – or was – a special and daunting undertaking, requiring great diligence and prudence to compose a version of your ideas that might stand the scrutiny of all sorts of readers without you being able to step in to explain. Those readers might live thousands of miles or even years away from you. They might not like what you have to say. As Plato had Socrates put in Phaedrus,

And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

While speech is designed around deep positive engagement with particular people, publication is designed around the challenge of generic communication and its virtues tend to be more defensive. Because the same form of words must communicate the same thing to everyone, what is published must be written for no one in particular and yet be clear enough for all. Furthermore, one does not get to choose one's readers. Some will be looking for reasons to disagree with you. If you care about that then you must fill your text with preemptive clarifications and defenses against their possible objections.

When all speech is published - fixed for all time and for all to see - all speech faces the problems Plato identified. It must do without you to explain and defend your meaning. It must survive the caustic skepticism of people who bear you no goodwill and who are free to judge it against whatever standards they please. Moreover, because publications are assumed to reflect your settled views, your character as well as your meaning is on trial. You will be blamed for your mistakes, not merely corrected. You will even be blamed for other people’s mistakes, as when your views are reduced to a few words taken out of context.

What does this look like in practice? Imagine a scenario already common. You get googled by a HR manager before a job interview; or by the guy you asked out on a date; or by the parents of the children you teach. They discover something stupid or awful you once said on twitter or facebook years ago, the kind of ugly remark that might once have existed for only a few moments between friends at a bar after work, before being kindly forgotten by those who knew it wasn't the real you talking. Those are the results that efficient search engines serve up, because they are the results that people are most interested in finding. But they are not a true reflection of your character or opinion. Nevertheless this is what you will be judged for, with no opportunity to explain or defend yourself.

Social media converts the right to self-expression into the kind of free speech you have after a police officer puts you in handcuffs, only without the formal warning that ‘You have the right to remain silent but anything you do say may be used against you’.

II. The Weaponisation of Counterspeech
Counterspeech plays an important role in the traditional justification for freeing speech from government censorship. When someone says something offensive and wrong about you or something you hold dear, you can take this as an opportunity to reply and correct them. Even if you don’t persuade the original speaker to change their mind, you have at least treated them as if they were engaged in a dialogue after the truth, rather than an enemy. You have also provided any onlookers with the chance to weigh up the arguments on both sides on their merits. Thus there is no need for government intervention: victims have the means to defend themselves while lies and mistakes will be discovered and corrected through debate.

Counterspeech on social media works almost entirely opposite to this ideal. It has become the preferred weapon of self-appointed vigilantes punishing and silencing people they deem immoral. A power for moral policing once limited to states is now exercised without system or restraint by an uncivil society.

Counterspeech has become so powerful because the business model of social media is focused on maximizing engagement, since this increases the amount of user attention that can be hacked off and sold to advertisers. In this attention economy it is not speech but reactions to it that matter, and outrage is one of the most profitable. Replies, which are mostly negative, are far more visible than likes. Counter-speakers thus enjoy an outsized visibility and apparent significance in proportion to the strength of their feelings rather than their numbers.

So far so annoying, but not especially threatening to free speech. Unfortunately, outrage is contagious. Social media networks are designed to transmit upsetting things on to those others most likely to be outraged, one way or another. Even if 95% of people in the world would not care, for example, that JK Rowling ‘liked’ a tweet that could be interpreted as transphobic, the 5% most likely to be offended will find it in their feed. A shame mob forms around the shared outrage that, although tiny as a proportion of the social media universe, is still large enough to dump a tsunami of hate and abuse on the unfortunate original speaker. And the shoutrage often extends to the people and organisations around the original speaker, with the harassment of friends, family, colleagues, customers, and employers in a deliberate attempt to emotionally, socially and economically punish the offender.

This is how things played out for the unfortunate Nobel Laureate biologist who made a joke about sexism that one person out of hundreds present chose to take literally and tweet out. That one person’s outrage was discovered and amplified by tens of thousands of similarly minded people who spontaneously organised a campaign to destroy the scientist’s career, and succeeded within days in getting him fired from various universities and research institutions.

This power to punish and destroy people is still not particularly likely to be turned on you, of course. But its arbitrariness already places a chill on speech. People begin to watch our words because we increasingly fear being called out, not to be corrected, as in traditional counterspeech, but to be publicly shamed as a bad person.

It may seem paradoxical, but those trying to punish people for posting disrespectful photographs, tweeting a failed joke, or being on the wrong side of a controversy such as Israel or transrights are motivated by moral beliefs. Just as most physical violence is motivated to enforce moral codes regulating social relationships, the indignants of social media use their powers to punish those whose speech transgresses their moral code. From the outside they look like vicious thugs, but from the inside they are moral vigilantes, selflessly keeping the rest of us safe by wading into the sewers of twitter to call out and destroy disease bearing vermin.

The indignants are confusing moralism with morality proper. Moralism consists of enforcing the social conventions ('mores') one has become acculturated to see as natural and proper against transgressors. It relies on the psychological apparatus of moral reaction (such as disgust and indignation) that seems to have evolved in our species' prehistory to police groups' internal order and external borders. In contrast real morality focuses on content rather than social function: certain moral beliefs deserve defending because they are correct, not because they happen to be ours.

The indigants are moralists because they are driven by their moral reactions rather than a concern to get the content of their moral beliefs right. Their feelings of anger and disgust are taken as sufficient proof that their targets are wrong and evil. Moralism contradicts and undermines genuine morality. It heats up the blood and numbs the brain.

First, indignation drives people to act against the universal moral principles they claim to believe in. They often claim to be defending others from hurt, on the grounds that hurting people is wrong. But in their frenzy of indignation these moralists forget that those they seek to punish are people too. Their righteousness dehumanises their targets and casts them as demons that have brought their destruction upon themselves. Honest mistakes are not possible. The worst possible interpretation is the one that must have been intended. (As Mary Beard repeatedly discovers.) Not surprisingly, the moralist easily loses all sense of proportion. Seemingly minor transgressions can result in histrionic nastiness: rape and death threats; doxxing; the deliberate harassment of people connected to the target - family members, neighbours, employers, customers.

Second, indignation precludes moral growth. Investigating what morality requires is a different project from enforcing current conventions. Investigation requires open-mindedness to alternative views and the freedom to make mistakes - because one can learn from them. Speech matters here because speech is how you learn about and test ideas, such as how to get morality right.

In contrast, moralism requires closed-minded loyalty to the crudest idea of politics as tribalism. Speech matters here because it identifies the speaker as a friend or enemy. Naturally enemies cannot be tolerated. People can't be allowed to just be wrong. They are an existential threat, not another human being trying to make sense of things like we all are, let alone an alternative perspective to learn from.

III What to do?
Free speech is under threat because a specific constellation of factors has given easily offended strangers on the other side of the world the power to punish people they deem immoral. To go along with this would be a mistake. It is neither possible nor desirable to internalise full responsibility for other people's possible responses to our thoughts. Free speech matters because it is intimately linked to thought – speaking is thinking together. Liberalism starts from respect for the autonomy of the individual to form their own opinions on the right and the good. If we fear to think aloud because we fear the wrath of some part of society then we are not free to form our own opinions anymore. The fact that it isn't a tyrannical government stopping us from thinking is irrelevant to the tyrannical effect.

If we want to preserve our freedom of speech we seem to have two main options. We can become better or worse people and we can fix social media.

We could become better people by switching off our instinctive moralism, our drive to punish people for being on the wrong side of an issue. We could just let people be wrong! We could even use our disagreement not to establish which tribe we belong to but as the starting point for a debate that could improve both of us. (That ambition beyond toleration is the ideal that JS Mill argued for in his classic defense of free speech.)

Or we could become worse people. We could vaccinate ourselves against cyber censorship by reducing our susceptibility to shame. Shame connects our sense of identity and well-being to what others think of us. It evolved to maintain harmony in small groups but can now be triggered by the online vitriol of distant strangers. Unfortunately, giving up on the mechanism of shame altogether would make us vulnerable to moral narcissism, as displayed by the likes of Donald Trump.

Most obviously, we can reform social media. Our loss of free speech results from deliberate design choices by a handful of companies like twitter and Facebook, for example to publish our casual speech in a globally searchable format and not to contain viral outbreaks of outrage. These technical choices in turn follow from an advertising business model in which we consumers are the product. It is not surprising that companies that make their money by farming us like livestock don’t bother to take our rights or interests seriously. But there is no reason why we can’t use our political power as citizens to change the rules of this broken game and force social media companies to design their products around our needs instead of advertisers’. And we can use social media to spread the word.

Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He blogs on politics, economics, and philosophy at The Philosopher's Beard. This is an adaptation of a longer essay published on that blog.