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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Social media may be toxic and stupid, but that doesn't justify censoring it

There are ideas that are dangerous and which cause social unrest, therefore it is for the good of the people that they must be censored and those who would spread them in the public sphere must be punished.

Every dictator in history has made an argument to the basic effect of the above sentence. 

Writers and thinkers from Galileo and Thomas Paine, and great thinkers of the Enlightenment, all the way to D.H. Lawrence, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, J.D. Salinger and a list that could take up pages were all the targets of authorities seeking to consolidate power and authority by prohibiting the expression of ideas they though might undermine the status quo. Certainly there's a big difference between some idiot ranting about the alleged racial superiority of white people on Facebook and James Joyce's Ulysses, but the central issue remains - who gets to decide what ideas you're allowed to read and hear and which you aren't.

In the case of social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, the matter is less clear cut. They're corporations which effectively operate as private media, and like any similar entity, they have the right to determine what content they wish to publish and which not. But the threat to basic freedoms comes in when governments and authorities tell them what they can and cannot allow on their platforms.

In the days of Voltaire, or Charles Dickens or H.L. Mencken, there were fewer people with the means and the will to have their ideas disseminated to the public. The history of print is not always a positive one. Just as there were Ben Franklins to advance public discourse, there were Father Coughlins to drag it into the gutter. That is the price of a free society.

That price may be getting higher now that every idiot with a smart phone and a data plan can now broadcast their deranged conspiracy theories or invective and on occasion lull other idiots into believing them. But the technologies that have emerged in the last two decades have also added great wealth in the marketplace of ideas. The ability of citizen journalists, alternative media, and regular people who have specialized knowledge means that some of the distortions disseminated by the establishment media can be seen for what it is. 

Yes, there is Fake News created by people trying to manipulate the public. But as we see frequently, much of that Fake News comes from established, legacy media which is often just as guilty of lying as a clickbait website based in some fat guy's garage. 

Check the veracity of a report by looking at lots of credible sources. Don't believe anything because just one person says it is so if you don't know that person to be an absolutely honest, credible source. And then, still verify if you can. If your emotionally fragile facebook friend puts up a post telling you about some new horror or danger, the odds are it's about as accurate as the reports of an invasion from Mars that people who tuned into the middle of Orson Welles' radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds though had beset them. 

Indeed there are some horrible, hateful, bigoted things being said online. There are also some truths being told and some important insights being shared. You're smart enough to be able to distinguish one from the other. And if you aren't, then neither is the government. Because the government doesn't manufacture some special breed of genius who can provide unassailable wisdom, it's made up of people just as stupid, and sometimes a lot stupider and often a lot more malevolent, than you or me. And those are not the people you want dictating your information flow.