The Thorny Questions Raised By Trying To Regulate Speech On Social Media
Commentary: Am I hypocritical in my relief that Facebook, Twitter, and the like are banning dangerous misinformation about the pandemic, vaccines, and the idea that China or a dead Venezuelan dictator helped Joe Biden steal the U.S. Presidency?
Free speech has always been a cause close to my heart. I have vigorously exercised that right to express highly unpopular points of view, some of which later became popular.
Legally, that right protects us from government interference or censorship. Newspapers, radio and TV, and cybermedia are not governments. Yet they’re where political speech happens most. There was a line of Supreme Court cases forcing shopping centers, being almost public thoroughfares, to allow protests; conservative justices erased it when they gained control. Trumpists might regret that.
I don’t like governments controlling speech; but I’m not wild about plutocrats doing so either. Yet I was relieved that Facebook put a sock in Donald Trump’s mouth. (I hope it was one Megan Rapinoe wore winning the World Cup.) I’m tired of Mr. Trump. His tweeting is part of a well-funded campaign to destroy what we have of democracy. People believe him, and even sacked the U.S. Capitol and assaulted Congress for him. (Assault is the crime of putting someone in reasonable fear for his or her life or safety.)
Trump is a danger to our democracy. But abridging free speech, except in extremely narrow confines, is also a danger to our democracy. It’s like newspapers omitting nutty or extremely rude letters to the editor; but Facebook is no town newspaper. For better or for worse, it reaches millions in nanoseconds.
Republicans in states that are (or soon will be) “swing states” are trying to legislate their way out of democratic elections. They want to make voting harder for folks, particularly poor and nonwhite folks, but (in case that’s not sufficient) also give themselves the right, essentially, to overrule elections. In 2024, if the people reject whatever Trump imitator the Republicans nominate, and the defeated candidate demands as Trump did, that officials overturn the vote, Republicans in key states could do so. I’d want to join Bernie Sanders in protesting loudly. What if Facebook banned posts questioning the sanctity of the new non-elections?
Health matters present a tough case. When influential folks (like the Governors of Florida and Texas) purvey vaccination misinformation, they are killing people. Or helping COVID-19 do so. (It ain’t coincidence that Florida and Texas are now experiencing disastrous COVID-19 contagion, while their cities and counties break the rules or sue the state.) Could we see a wrongful death lawsuit against cybermedia for publishing vaccine/mask disinformation? Causation would be tough to prove.
Clearly, the misinformers are making a political argument. Expressed more honestly than they usually put it, they say that instead of sacrificing so much to protect human life, we should act freely, in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar (and political power), and let hospitals get overcrowded and people die, because the fittest will survive. (There’s no Constitutional right not to be vaccinated if so ordered. See Jacobson v Massachusetts.)
I believe generally in following the law. I’ve also studied Barack Obama’s authorization and direction of a mission to kill a foreign national on another nation’s soil; and while I recognize he probably violated international law, I applaud him and those troops.
Similarly, I’m glad we’re no longer bombarded with Donald’s attacks on our democracy, but I’m uneasy.