To what standard of free speech should we hold Twitter?

Counter-speech is the more appropriate answer to concerns about Twitter’s and other social media’s echochamber

Censorship or counter-speech?
William Rinehart
On 5 June 2013 06:56

Late last week, Turkey erupted in a blaze of protest. Beginning first as an environmental sit-in over the redevelopment of an Istanbul park, the protests have since spread to other cities and the message is changing too. Many are expressing anxiety that legal changes are blurring the lines between Ataturk’s secular state and and an Islamic one. Of course, accounts of the clashes with police are coming from the one place that constantly buzzes with snippets of information and blurry images: Twitter.

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan blasted the microblogging site over the weekend, claiming that it has fed people “lies.” He even went so far as to call social media “the curse of society today.”

This column space is not going to be used to reiterate a banal argument about the power of media to change power balances. We know this. But, moving past the Turkish context for a moment, what if Twitter does indeed spread lies? What should we do then?

Almost on cue, Michael S. Rosenwald of the Washington Post posted a snarky op-ed exploring just this subject:

In the pre-social-network age, controversies were curated by the mass media, then disseminated to the rest of us. Now, the Twitter Police stir up the daily outrage — real, exaggerated or just plain false — which is picked up by Twitter-monitoring reporters who believe that the skirmishes there reflect the deep concerns of the American people, even though 84 percent of adult U.S. Internet users don’t use the service, according to the Pew Research Center.

An anecdote about Niall Ferguson serves to illustrate the point. As Rosenwald relates, the Harvard historian recently made comments about economist John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality, wondering about its effect on his theories. Twitter soon caught on and Ferguson was met with swift rebukes by the Twitter Police, to employ Rosenwald’s moniker. In the article, Rosenwald follows the story by saying that “Unlike cops in the offline world, the Twitter Police are enforcing laws of their own making, with procedures they have authorized for themselves. But like street cops, the Twitter Police can be wrong.”

Formal procedures are the hallmark of an institution like a police force. Yet, Twitter is better understood as a marketplace of ideas, and markets, by their very nature, don’t have strict formality of procedures. Twitter has something much better: it can counter illiberal and illogical speech with a liberal and logical response. It allows diversity of ideas, and allows those conflicts to play out in a setting where the power resides more in thought than political connection.

In short, Twitter has counter-speech.  While we might lament about the lack of context that Niall Ferguson’s comments received on Twitter, who is to say that his comments didn’t need to be restated or defended?

I tend to agree with Andrew Gelman on this:

The good news, though, is I think this whole story is a sign of improving standards of public discourse, at least when it comes to outspoken professors. Back in the old days, there were respected academics who were Stalinists, Fascists, you name it. Nowadays when you take an extreme position, you’re expected to defend it, otherwise you don’t get taken seriously any more.

Perhaps that is why Erdogan calls the entire service a curse, because it demands that everyone, including public intellectuals and politicians, actually substantiate their claims.

The home secretary, Theresa May, seems to have fallen prey to the same kind of fallacy as Rosenwald, when she called for the pre-censorship of online hate speech after the Woolwich attack. The murder by two Islamist extremists of the soldier was utterly vile, expressing a complete breakdown in humanity, to be clear. But, the solution to radicalization online isn’t the wholesale ban of grotesque speech or the censorship of those who hold “disgusting views.” It is response through counter-speech. Furthermore, does anyone actually believe we live in a world where a couple of erasures of information will deter an attack in the future? Hardly.

Consider statement made by another unnamed government official on the matter: "We cannot stand by and let people whip up violent hatred of Britain and its values and culture with the appalling consequences we have seen." While we might know what “whipping up violent hatred”  means in the abstract, what this will look like in practice will be much more sloppy.

Four years ago, the American political shock jock Michael Savage was banned from the UK under these kinds of laws, along with members of Hamas, some skinheads, and the leader of a white supremacist group. He was placed with the other because he was “someone who has fallen into the category of fomenting hatred, of such extreme views and expressing them in such a way that it is actually likely to cause inter-community tension or even violence if that person were allowed into the country.” Michael Savage does live up to his assumed last name, but the claim he incited violence is dubious.

Democracies demand speech and opinions. Mostly it is honest, but sometimes it is ugly. Those who crave sensible discussion and an open society have to retort to vile speech whenever possible, which is in part a mission of this site. Tolerance is among the most important of liberal traditions. We shouldn’t give this up just to impose a regulated civility, and we should resist when others demand we do.

William Rinehart is a Research Fellow at TechFreedom and tweets at @WillRinehart

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