Sedition and Free Speech

Conservatives are claiming that companies like Amazon and Twitter are violating their First Amendment rights. They’re wrong, but their situation points to a deeper problem in our public discourse.

The First Amendment says that the government can’t punish you for speaking your mind. It doesn’t say that anyone in the private sector has to maintain their relationships with you if you say something they don’t want to be associated with. I find this analogy useful: Free speech is like a bar you can drink at. But no one has to sit next to you, listen to what you say, or join in when you start singing.

In particular, a number of US corporations have decided that their brands would be damaged by association with the invasion of the US Capitol and the attempt to maintain Trump in office by force.

And so Josh Hawley, the Fascist senator from Missouri (F-MO), lost his book contract with Simon & Schuster after he raised his fist in support of the violent mob that was about to invade his workplace. His Twitter bio describes him as a “constitutional lawyer”, so he must understand that what he tweets here to “the woke mob at @SimonSchuster” — a metaphoric mob as opposed to the literal mob Hawley encouraged — is nonsense:

This could not be more Orwellian. Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.

The libertarian site Reason points out what should be obvious:

Hawley has no right to publish a book with Simon & Schuster, using Simon & Schuster’s resources, without Simon & Schuster’s consent. … In light of this, there is nothing Orwellian about any part of this episode. We all have a right to refuse to associate with those who are repugnant to us, and none of us have a right to associate with those who don’t want to associate with us.

In a similar but more significant case, Twitter decided it didn’t like seeing its platform used to foment insurrection against the United States, and so it removed Donald Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.

Trump tried to get his tweets out through other accounts, which Twitter shut down in whack-a-mole fashion. “If it is clear that another account is being used for the purposes of evading a ban, it is also subject to suspension.”

After Facebook decided that some conservative users were consistently violating its “community standards” (which I also occasionally run afoul of, for reasons that escape me), many of them emigrated to Parler, a social media platform more accepting of racism and incitement of violence. Much of the planning for the Capitol riot apparently happened over Parler, though much of the really violent stuff was discussed on sites like, where people are still calling for Trump to declare martial law and stay in power by force. In a visit of less than a minute, I noticed this:

State legislatures failed, governors failed, secretary of states failed, judges failed, congress failed and the highest court in the land failed. If there was ever a time to use the Insurrection Act right now would be arguably the reason why we have it.

Again, major corporations don’t like being associated with fascist insurrection. So Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores, making it hard for new users to join. But the big blow came when Amazon Web Services (AWS) decided to stop hosting Parler’s site.

AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we continue to respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow on its site. However, we cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others. Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account.

As a result, Parler CEO John Matze estimates that the site could be offline for about a week, while it rebuilds its infrastructure. Like Hawley, he protests against censorship.

Concentration, not censorship. There actually is an issue here, but has nothing to do with the First Amendment. It’s antitrust and monopoly, a topic that fits badly inside a conservative worldview that makes a fetish of the “free” market.

The national discourse now depends on a fairly small number of corporations like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. If you look beyond the internet and social media, the number doesn’t get much bigger: Disney, Time-Warner, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS, and a few others control the major TV networks and most of the major magazines. Local newspapers and TV stations have been gobbled up by chains like Gannett and Sinclair, and few newspapers beyond The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have national scope or a national readership.

The problem isn’t “censorship” or “media bias” however you interpret those terms. And it’s not targeted at conservatives, in spite of all their whining and howling. (I believe that if Biden ends his term by attempting a violent coup, Twitter will probably shut him off as well.) The problem is that we have allowed our media infrastructure to develop choke points, which are controlled by corporations or individuals whose interests are not necessarily the public interest, and whose decisions are beyond public appeal.

That’s a complex problem that can’t be solved by a lawsuit or a new interpretation of the First Amendment. It’s going to require some real thought and some wise public policy.

Democracy and free speech. The essence of the problem is that the relationship between democracy and free speech has changed in recent years. Rather than Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare of too little speech, where no one is in a position to contest the government’s narrative, we now arguably face too much speech. “The Truth is Out There” according to the poster in Fox Mulder’s office, but how will you find it, or recognize it when you do? Disinformation has replaced ignorance as the primary threat to democratic public discourse. Truth is not kept secret so much as buried under mountains of bullshit.

Thomas Edsall discusses the problems (but offers little in the way of solutions) in “Have Trump’s Lies Wrecked Free Speech?” My own view, which still needs a lot of work to flesh out, is that we are experiencing a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. (I believe this novel application of the term “market failure” comes from Richard Hasen, whose book Cheap Speech should be worth reading when it comes out.)

The original theory of free speech and its role in a democracy is that Truth eventually wins out in the marketplace of ideas, if it is allowed to compete. That seems to be in doubt now.

But the marketplace of ideas, like all markets, is a human construction, not something that occurs naturally. Markets work or don’t work depending on how they’re set up. The marketplace of ideas, as currently constituted, is not working. Edsall quotes Lawrence Lessig:

There’s a very particular reason why this more recent change in technology has become so particularly destructive: it is not just the technology, but also the changes in the business model of media that those changes have inspired. The essence is that the business model of advertising added to the editor-free world of the internet, means that it pays for them to make us crazy. Think about the comparison to the processed food industry: they, like the internet platforms, have a business that exploits a human weakness, they profit the more they exploit, the more they exploit, the sicker we are.

It’s still possible to imagine a world where Truth rises to the top and disinformation sinks out of sight — maybe by some crowdsourced method rather than by the decision of either a government bureaucrat or an officer of some corporate monopoly. It’s possible to imagine a world where people are encouraged to feed their minds a healthy diet of information with some relationship to facts and logic, rather than violence-inducing conspiracy theories. But such a model will need to be constructed, promoted, and consciously chosen. Simply wishing we had one will not be enough.

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  • TRPChicago  On January 11, 2021 at 10:10 am

    The classic justification for Free Speech is that ideas should compete openly and when they do, the best ones will prevail. This presumes the ready availability of all sides of an issue and a desire for critical thinking by the recipients. Gee, what about an authoritarian Executive could limit that?

  • Barbara J Mantegani  On January 11, 2021 at 10:15 am

    “It’s possible to imagine a world where people are encouraged to feed their minds a healthy diet of information with some relationship to facts and logic, rather than violence-inducing conspiracy theories. But such a model will need to be constructed, promoted, and consciously chosen.”

    THAT IS THE PROBLEM!! There is a significant portion of the US population that consciously chooses violence-inducing conspiracy theories, and no amount of careful construction of factual information will dissuade them from their alternate universe. Did you actually LISTEN to the insurrectionists who were interviewed after the fact? They are true believers, cult members, much more dangerous that Jim Jones’ followers because they live among us and are heavily armed. No amount of careful construction of good information is going to help these people, they just need to be watched closely.

  • HAT  On January 11, 2021 at 10:27 am

    Here’s a suggestion for you to, possibly, incorporate in your fleshing out your own views: information costs are a big part of the problem. I don’t just mean the price of newspapers vs the price of Facebook, or the existence of paywalls at sources of “better journalism,” although that’s part of it. I mean the time and effort it takes to acquire reliable, close-to-the-source information about anything these days, and the considerable effort and expense it takes to build the mental infrastructure to assess that information once one gets it, most of which has to be paid up front, far in advance, before one feels its urgent necessity. You, yourself, will know about this from direct experience better than most, as you are actively engaged in reducing information costs for some of the rest of us. Many people, I suspect most people if the range of issues gets beyond a couple or three, simply cannot pay the price being charged for truth these days.

    • bgraywolf  On January 11, 2021 at 11:15 am

      I absolutely agree with this statement.

      One of my own thoughts on the matter is that we are seeing a separation in the American populous based on ability (or desire) to correctly and appropriately filter incoming information. As you correctly point out, this requires significant time and resources to setup and additional time to keep it in tune. A fairly large number of American’s either cannot do the work needed or are in positions of privilege and never needed the advantages that such a framework would provide.

      I just don’t know how a functioning well built mental infrastructure is ever going to be as attractive as just signing on any number of religious organizations, many of which are super happy to do your thinking for you. Most of those organizations also come prepackaged with friends and a sense of community.

      • HAT  On January 11, 2021 at 2:59 pm

        People will do hard things, when they have the desire – if the reward(s) are sufficiently appealing. Truth needs a good marketing department. At a minimum, a better one than the alternative, which historically seems often not to have been the case.

      • Daughter Number Three  On January 11, 2021 at 3:06 pm

        It needs a good marketing department or gamification, which is what some have argued is what Q has going for it. What a world, that has such people in it.

  • bneibrakmom  On January 11, 2021 at 10:51 am

    OK, so using the bar analogy, or your support of the publisher (which I do understand) why does a baker HAVE to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding if he feels that wedding is is a danger to society (as God does not like it), and he believes is not ethical? I am not talking about SERVING a gay man who orders a piece of cake, but making a cake that implies agreement with something he does not belive in. PLEASE DO NOT BASH ME; I AM TRYING TO CLARIFY YOUR thinking

    • Roger  On January 11, 2021 at 11:02 am

      Re: the bar analogy. bneibrakmom – you don’t have to sit next to me, let’s say because I’m black, but the bartender needs to serve both of us if we have the money (unless it’s a private club). So if I want to buy a wedding cake, and marry a person of another race, am I limited to non-bigot cake makers? Should there be signs on the windows indicating, “We don’t serve mixed race or non-heterosexual couples?” It reeks too much of “colored” water fountains, white-only lunch counters, and sitting in the back of the bus.there’s a reason we got rid of those.

      • bneibrakmom  On January 11, 2021 at 11:18 am

        Thank you. Point well explained

      • bneibrakmom  On January 11, 2021 at 11:41 am

        OK…. however there are two things pissibly not clear with your analogy. (I am trying to clarify this point of view so that I can explain to others).
        1) we are not talking about a person refusing to serve a gay person per se, (akin to serving a black person) but refusing to make a wedding cake , aiding in something he believes is a sin
        2) what differentiates the cake maker from the publishers – both are withdrawing a service because they do not want to be associated with an act or opinion. What makes one the “bartender” and one the person who is choosing were to sit?

      • Timothy Swanson  On January 11, 2021 at 3:29 pm

        bneibrakmom, here is an essential difference: Nobody actually goes to a wedding and thinks the cake (or any of the food) is an exercise of the baker’s free speech, a religious act. It’s a cake. You eat it. Just like the food. Just like the champagne. Same thing for the music – I am a musician who has played plenty of weddings, some of which I could tell were ending in divorce before the year was out. Nobody, literally nobody, thought that my musical art was expressing approval of the wedding. I was paid to make music. The only reason we think of them as somehow connected to “freedom of speech or religion” is that religious bigots have made that claim. As Roger notes, the exact same argument applies to refusing to bake for an interracial marriage (which a shocking number of religious people believe is wrong.) As to the second question, providing a good or service is rarely speech. But publishing a book very much is. One final, related point. Our anti-discrimination laws protect certain categories of people, such as race, gender, religion, etc. Political viewpoint is not a protected category, nor should it be.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On January 11, 2021 at 4:08 pm

        I want to clarify, I think any baker who refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding on religious grounds is a bigot who is misinterpreting his own religion (or follows a degenerate hate club masquerading as a religion). But that being said, providing food or entertainment for a wedding does imply endorsement. As a musician, would you have knowingly performed at a Ku Klux Klan wedding? I assume you wouldn’t have, because that would have implied endorsement even if your only interest was to perform and get paid.

      • Derek  On January 11, 2021 at 6:58 pm

        The case of the cake baker was ruled narrowly that the State violated the law, not that it was ok for the cake baker to discriminate (the Supreme Court used some really twisted logic). A private business serving only members can discriminate. That being said the people can protest, the civil authority could pull their license to operate because they don’t want to allow discrimination. Complaining that you want a private company to publish your book or host web site is nonsense, as private companies that require a membership or in the case of publishing they have to invite you, they can do whatever they want

    • George Washington, Jr.  On January 11, 2021 at 12:24 pm

      Because if sexual orientation is protected under civil rights laws, it’s in a different category than political opinion, which is not protected.

    • Kenneth Apple  On January 11, 2021 at 12:49 pm

      A bar is licensed by the government to do business with the public. If a member of the public walks in with money and doesn’t create mischief, you will have a hard time coming up with reason to deny service. Though it can be done.

      In the book/publisher analogy, the publisher is the bar. The author is not a customer, but a vendor. The bar has no obligation to pay for a nazi themed whiskey. The publisher has no obligation to buy, which is what they are doing, any particular manuscript.

      Josh is still perfectly capable, as a customer, of spend his own money to print and distribute his book.

      • bneibrakmom  On January 11, 2021 at 2:50 pm

        thank you

      • bobdrad  On January 12, 2021 at 8:38 pm

        I’m not sure it’s as easy as “buyers and sellers”. For example:
        Should a musician who sells his music and allows it to be played by the public, be permitted to withhold the right to play his music at some event he disagrees with? He’s a seller. Fundamentally this isn’t different from the baker and the gay customer.

      • leaky  On January 12, 2021 at 9:16 pm

        It is a little different, bobdrad. If I buy a pillow, it belongs to me and I can use it however I want. But if I buy a piece of software, I’m only licensing it. Often there is a user’s agreement that limits how I use the software. I can stream Netflix but I can’t share my account. I can photocopy a book for my own use but if I distribute it widely, I’m violating copyright. A lot of rights remain with the copyright holder in the case of recorded music. We might ask “is it discriminatory to allow a song to be used at some events but not others?” My impression is that it’s backwards. I suspect most requests are denied for various reasons (“I don’t want my song used in a TV commercial!”), but the copyright holder will sometimes license the song for specific uses.

    • bneibrakmom  On January 11, 2021 at 5:18 pm

      Thankyou all for your replies; as Gerge Washington’s post on “Klu Klux Klan” wedding shows, it may not always be so simple, and the line between defending the rights of minorities and that of allowing people to uphold what they believe to be true (whether we agree with them or not) can be quite tricky…. and undoubtably overlap at certain points. I believe firmly in the rights of minorities, but we need a stardard definition of when and how much these things overlap, no matter how we feel about a certain view point. For example, if I am the only printer in town, could I refuse to print fliers calling on everyone not to wear masks during the pandemic? People tend to answer all these questions based on THEIR value system, but if we want to reach some acceptable standard of rights vs limitations with others who have different values, we need a set of rules that apply to all.
      With this final note I again thank all who replied.

      • leaky  On January 12, 2021 at 9:51 am

        My opinion is that there is a difference between buying and selling, and there is a difference between selling general goods and specialized ones. Buyers have the right to choose who to buy from, like the publishers who would be giving Josh Hawley money in return for his IP. People who sell general goods or services should not have the right to withhold them from people who have the money to purchase them simply because they dislike the buyer. So the bar can’t discriminate about who they serve. A custom job is different; nobody is expected to take every commission that comes their way. Musicians might refuse to take a live gig for any reason, but can’t refuse to sell their recordings to entire classes of people. Visual artists can refuse a commission, but if they have made 100 prints of a work, cannot refuse to sell them to a willing buyer. The printer and the cake baker are harder to classify because every job is in some way a custom job. So I think that if your entire business is printing fliers and newsletters, you should be willing to print them with little regard to their content. If a baker has a selection of cakes that they typically make, they should sell them to anyone who wants them. As an edge case, I’d say that the baker should not be required to stock same-sex decorations, like two grooms together. But they should allow the buyer to purchase two separate groom decorations.

      • bneibrakmom  On January 12, 2021 at 5:54 pm

        Thankyou! This is the best-laid out thoughts I have readon this, and it all makes sense. I really appreciate this. I believe that it is important that we have well- thought out rules. Because when policy is determined by our gut feeling, we risk applying different standards to those who disagree with us- which only adds to the polorization and resentment. Also a well-thought out and laid out policy allows one to show someone (IF they are willing to listen)whycertain sistuations may not be as similar as they first appear.

      • Guest  On January 12, 2021 at 11:34 am

        With the caveat that “a set of rules that applies to all” is more aspirational than 100% descriptive (ie, in practice we often find that we have one legal/medical system for the rich, and a different one for the poor, one for white another for black, etc), the solution you are looking for is already on the books. Legally protected classes and federal anti-discrimination law as interpreted by our courts is the baseline to look into. If you are part of a protected class, say, if you are gay, you now have protections in the US against discrimination on the basis of your sexual orientation. On the other hand, holding the values of, say, KKK white supremacy, or, as in Hawley’s case, the values of violent sedition against democracy and free and fair elections, do not constitute a protected class. Neither does holding the values of the green new deal, universal basic income, etc. You are free to hold these values, but you are not legally protected from discrimination based on those values.

        In case you’re still reading bneibrakmom, in addition to reading up on anti-discrimination law, it may be helpful to re-examine your framing. For instance, the rights of minorities vs allowing people to uphold what they believe, may be a false dilemma.

  • Roger  On January 11, 2021 at 10:52 am

    I too have fretted about the marketplace. I have seen friends in Facebook ‘jail’ for challenging the lies of these anarchists. It’s not that the conspiracy folks don’t have access to CNN or even FOX, but they prefer QAnon or sites I had never heard of before. (Should I admit that I never heard of Parler until a week ago?)

  • Chris in Upstate  On January 11, 2021 at 11:45 am

    PBS, is excellent but always struggling for funding. Could you please bring PBS into your phenomenal data-sorting brain, as you mull over “Truth, 1st Amendment, and the Marketplace of Ideas.” I thank-you!

  • Langdon Winner  On January 11, 2021 at 12:02 pm

    Your comment at the end that “It’s possible to imagine a world where people are encouraged to feed their minds a healthy diet of information with some relationship to facts and logic, rather than violence-inducing conspiracy theories. But such a model will need to be constructed, promoted, and consciously chosen.” It’s important to note that the model you suggest is the very one proposed, promoted and realized in early modern thought among humanists, the complex movements of modern science, political revolutionaries, and strands of discourse that came to be known as “The Enlightenment.” For a long while it appeared that this wonderful movement would be resilient and robust enough to confront and rise victorious against its modern foes — totalitarian ideologies, toxic varieties of mystification and the like. The surprise today is that the power of information technologies and associated plagues of misinformation/disinformation and conspiracy theories they propagate are so widely popular and pungent, placing the hard won triumphs of modern inquiry, science and reasonable discourse in what now looks like an increasingly frantic retreat.

  • Anonymous  On January 11, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    And the bar can kick you out if they don’t like what you are saying or how you are acting…

    • Derek  On January 11, 2021 at 6:59 pm

      yes they can and they don’t need a reason.

  • Chris in Upstate  On January 11, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    bgraywolf makes an important point. People that cannot think for themselves can survive by following someone they trust. Following is usually the safest way of life, because you will always be in a crowd. Probably we the people writing here, and Doug DO think for ourselves. We are the exceptions, and while rewarding, it’s not an easy life, is it?! So. Somehow we as a Society need to be able to maximize the influence of “healthy” leaders, and minimize “unhealthy” leaders. I think the discernment must be by HEALTH, not religious or moral or ideological. For example, Does porn or violence lead to an increase in health or decrease? Maybe we could tax more unhealthy stuff, to both 1) label it as socially-deemed unhealthy, and 2) provides funds for the healthy alternative. IDK.

  • Chris in Upstate  On January 11, 2021 at 12:32 pm

    Wikipedia is a wonderful success. Expert-written and peer-reviewed, like the best Medical Journals. These might show us The Way.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On January 11, 2021 at 12:43 pm

      I’ve been told by several conservatives that “Wikipedia is biased,” to which I respond by advising them to log in and correct it.

      If you want a laugh, take a look at “conservapedia.”

      • nicknielsensc  On January 11, 2021 at 9:55 pm

        I usually make sure to not have food or drink near when I encounter even the mention of conservapedia, but your comment took me by surprise and I was sipping my whisky when I read it. You owe me screen wipes AND a Taiyo!

        I can wait to collect until the next time we meet.

  • RevLinda  On January 11, 2021 at 12:53 pm

    I have close contact with a family that is struggling with underemployment and the search for affordable housing. They are too busy just trying to survive to spend the time I do reading your blog, the Times, the Post, etc., and watch PBS and documentaries ( and assess the any of these are biased in any way). They react mostly to memes, headlines, and what they see on social media when they have time to pay attention to that. They are not ignorant or unable to reason, they are just overwhelmed with the struggle for existence. In many ways, they do not participate in your “marketplace.” In fact, many people aren’t interested enough to participate. In the world I grew up in, we relied on the Big Three as authorities for the facts of our lives. The elite I knew where the ones who subscribed to Time and Newsweek. But now, that Big Three has exploded, and very few people I know have a comprehensive news source. Even our local newspaper has eroded to three or four issues per week with shrinking content.

  • Guest  On January 11, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    “The problem is that we have allowed our media infrastructure to develop choke points, which are controlled by corporations or individuals whose interests are not necessarily the public interest, and whose decisions are beyond public appeal.”

    Great point, Doug, thank you. This harmonizes with the “Manufacturing Consent” bell the left has been ringing for decades. I would add that this likely applies not just to media but to more of our political infrastructure than we’d maybe like to admit. In any case, whenever this point came up in the context of the media’s tragic treatment of Bernie Sanders during each of his primary runs, it seemed you and others here reacted dismissively of it. Glad it’s finding traction now, “better late than never.”

    Came across the following article last week that underlines how much sway these “choke points” can hold:

    “…party leaders can fundamentally shift the stances of their followers, causing them in some cases to quickly reverse their views even on high-stakes policy issues.”

    Party leaders, media leaders, corporate interest lobbyists, I’d guess they all apply in principle here. In practice, there seems to be a revolving door between them.

  • Stephen Morillo  On January 11, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    On the intersection of Free Speech and monopoly capitalism, Cory Doctorow is well worth reading.

    • Anonymous  On January 11, 2021 at 5:47 pm

      Do you have a link to anything that you specifically would like to recommend?

  • DDPorter  On January 11, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    Matt Taibbi has been wrangling this issue of a media system addicted to poisoning the marketplace of ideas for some time — see his “Hate, Inc” book. He currently blogs at in today’s post he suggests:
    We need a new media channel, the press version of a third party, where those financial pressures to maintain audience are absent. Ideally, it would:
    * not be aligned with either Democrats or Republicans;
    * operating on a distribution model that as much as possible doesn’t depend upon the indulgence of Apple, Google, and Amazon.

    Seems like a possible starting point for “But such a model will need to be constructed, promoted, and consciously chosen. Simply wishing we had one will not be enough.”

    • nicknielsensc  On January 11, 2021 at 10:16 pm

      I subscribe to several small newsletters in addition to the Weekly Sift:
      – Popular Information (, a newsletter by Judd Legum that provides in-depth coverage of issues without the noise. If you’ve heard about companies backing off of political donations to the Sedition Caucus, Judd is one of those who first asked what they were going to do about it.
      – Press Run (, Eric Boehlert’s blog on the media and how (and often why) they get it wrong also includes a balanced look at the new issues in queston.
      – Big (, a newsletter by Matt Stoller about monopoly issues and how they affect us and why they should be eliminated.

      Subscriptions to all of the newsletters are free. Now that I’ve cut the cord to the NYTimes, I have the money, so I support them.

  • Abby  On January 12, 2021 at 2:21 am

    Gee whiz, if I had known that my free speech rights are violated if Simon and Schuster refuses to publish my books, I would have published all of them with S&S!

    Who knew it was so easy to get a book contract? According to Hawley, all I have to do is invoke my right to free speech, and S&S is obliged to publish it! If only I had known…

  • Eric L  On January 12, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    While I would not accuse Simon & Schuster of censorship, I do think it makes sense to apply the term to the actions of social media platforms. One of the main reasons I’m not a libertarian (or for that matter a conservative) is, while I believe it is possible for government power to be oppressive, I don’t believe that only government power can be. I think we need checks on the powers of businesses as well whether they have that power over us as their employees or as their customers/users. Where I don’t want this to end (and I hope you agree?) is with us having the same sort of heavily monitored/censored speech as in China except that since it’s a handful of billion dollar companies collaborating to do it rather than the government well then it’s all just good ol’ free enterprise. I see a strong tendency in discussions about this to let the questions begin and end with questions like “Did Twitter make the right call in this instance?” Surely at some point we should ask, why should they have the power to make these calls, why are these people trusted to act on the general public’s behalf, and are they really all that accountable to us? The frequent absence of these seemingly obvious questions in this discussion alarms me.

    • Eric L  On January 13, 2021 at 1:57 pm

      I should probably mention that I work for a large tech firm as it is relevant to my opinions. I don’t personally work on social media. I do have concerns that new social media technologies are affecting the marketplace of ideas for the worse. But this isn’t a result of failing to censor what previous communications technologies censored. Even now (so far?) we don’t see calls for telecom companies to deny service to Trump or Alex Jones or Richard Spencer. Conspiracy theorists have always been with us. What’s changed is what our communication technologies amplify. At first, novel fringe beliefs will seem far more widely held online than they actually are. This can then produce counter-radicalization, and can also create echo chambers where the fringe beliefs seem normal. And aside from counter-radicalization, there’s the fact that even reasonable opposition can usually only be expressed in ways that help the fringe sentiment go viral. And in that environment, you have advertisers and platforms automated recommendation systems optimizing for clicks. Often with the assumption that a click is a satisfied user/customer, but the reality being there is a lot of unhealthy engagement being optimized too. So… I definitely think there is a problem here and have some sympathy with people holding social media platforms responsible here, but censorship really doesn’t address the root of the problem, and is hard to scale.

      Quick example of unhealthy engagement optimization. Youtube got a lot of flack for the fact that people who watch mainstream news would frequently find the next autoplayed content was far more radical. So they updated to make recommendations on news strongly prefer authoritative news sources. The result? A later study found they direct people away from mainstream sources to the most partisan sources that could be called authoritative (e.g. Fox News).

      So these are still automated recommendations, YouTube isn’t trying to favor partisan sources. But just directing people to what they most likely would have clicked on next is great for directing cat video viewers to other adorable content, but is also a way to automate “If that pushes your buttons *here* is someone who will *really* get you worked up.” Without changing that, at best you’re putting a threshold on how far you’re automating people’s radicalization. Meanwhile power is further consolidated, tech companies develop habits of being more interventionist.

      To be fair, figuring out what would change the dynamics of social media is a complex problem, and features are always changing, without a straightforward way to predict how each change affects these sorts of dynamics. But at least from my own position I’m concerned about how in every new emergency leadership increasingly feels a need to say they are addressing it, and that means figuring out who needs to be censored in this situation, while I don’t see people asking about what it is about social media that has amplified the effects of extreme content in the first place. And I’m not entirely sure how to ask that internally myself. Partly because I worry about how being anti-censorship might be seen by fellow employees as pro-hate-speech, but also because I worry that properly articulating my concerns might lead to concerns among management that my words would look bad if we were ever in an antitrust investigation or that I would be a threat to be questioning something so basic to this sort of business as maximizing engagement. Perhaps I’m just paranoid but I’d rather vent about this on your blog. Anyway I’ll leave it at that.


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