Startling Clarity on Free Speech
You may not speak, because you are a person of the type and category whose speech is not permissible. And it’s a corporate failure if you actually get to say something.
Jay Bhattacharya calls attention to this important exchange this week between Senator Josh Hawley and Facebook executive Chris Cox:
So yes: Government officials told social media companies what content to remove from their platforms, and social media companies did what government officials told them to do. And they all feel pretty good about doing that.
But it’s extremely important to notice what happened all around this exchange. PBS provides video of the entire hearing, and it opens with the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee demanding that social media companies do more to remove “extremist, dangerous, and radicalizing content.”
“This content does significant harm to our society and stokes real-world violence.”
News reports on this hearing say approvingly that senators went after social media executives with tough questions about how they allow people to say things without making them stop:
Notably, Chairman and Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan brought the receipts—he began the “current executives” portion of the hearing with recent examples of “Boogaloo Bois” and other extremists groups’ ability to skirt Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter’s content-moderation practices. The organizations he presented had thousands of views, followers, and impressions related to extremist groups, some of whom potentially played a role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. While the January 6th Select Committee is doing the bulk of investigative work, Peters has previously alleged that platforms played a role in facilitating violence that day.
Peters emphasized that each company knows that engagement is a key metric to keeping people on the platform. He challenged Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, with Mark Zuckerberg’s own words: In 2018, the CEO said, “when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content.”
“That [sensationalist and provocative] content is actually good for your business!” Peters remarked. “Isn’t that inevitable,” Peters added, “that more people will engage with provocative content?”
Private companies are allowing people to read and write provocative content. Why aren’t they stopping it?
So Josh Hawley asked a social media executive if social media companies are removing content because government is telling them to, and he had that exchange in the middle of a long discussion in which government officials told social media executives what content they find objectionable and want removed from social media platforms. Gary Peters made Josh Hawley’s point, and did it with the greatest possible clarity.
The frustrating absence in the exchange between Hawley and Cox is about the presumption in the category of “disinformation.” Cox acknowledges that Facebook has removed Covid-19 disinformation in coordination with government, but no discussion follows about how often they got that categorization right. Was every piece of “disinformation” removed from Facebook actually disinformation, or did some of it turn out to be information? Is it correct to say that every claim removed from social media as disinformation was provably incorrect?
If you were thrown off Facebook in 2021 for saying that mRNA injections wouldn’t prevent Covid-19 transmission and infection, were you actually penalized for disinformation?
But do not fail to notice how matter-of-factly American elected officials declare that categories of people should not be allowed to speak, in a discussion that proceeds on the unchallenged assumption that government can choose the right and wrong sides in contests over information.
UPDATED TO ADD: