In a recent article for CNN, Kara Alaimo voices some concerns about speech and social media. Although she frequently uses the term “free speech”, what really worries her is unmoderated speech, meaning speech that is not restricted by the platform. who hosts the speaker.
To be clear, I think platforms have every right to moderate speech in any way they wish, and such moderation does not constitute censorship. Censorship, as I understand the term, only occurs when the state prohibits or inhibits a form of expression. If a history podcast refuses to provide a platform for a denier, the podcast is not engaging in censorship, nor is the denier deprived of their right to free speech. Your right to free speech does not entitle you to use someone else’s private platform against their will.
Alaimo worries that social media platforms like Twitter, Parler and Truth Social are not aggressive enough to moderate what she sees as “conservative” speech. But in her article, she also explains, without realizing it, why attempts to shut down certain views on these platforms will backfire in ways she would find regrettable.
If you take people with a certain worldview (eg, conservatism) and systematically exclude them from a public forum, those people don’t just disappear. They also don’t lose interest in discussing their ideas. Instead, they will simply form a new platform designed for themselves and like-minded people. As Alaimo points out, this is exactly how platforms like Parler and Truth Social came to be. And since these new platforms are intellectually isolated from opposing views, they end up spawning increasingly extreme versions of the views they originally hosted. In his words:
[T]These three social media platforms are likely to serve as ecosystems for conservative thinking. This will likely make the views of those who remain there more extreme – which could have a drastic effect on our politics. Indeed, when like-minded people come together, they reaffirm and reinforce the original beliefs of others…Those who remain in these conservative spaces will become even more extreme due to their interactions, which could cultivate a dangerous ideology of extreme right which has far-reaching effects on our politics.
For me, this reaffirms not just the value, but the crucial need for open dialogue with a wide variety of voices, especially when those voices hold views that you find abhorrent. Banning them from a platform doesn’t just prevent you from hearing their uncomfortable views. It also keeps them from being exposed to opposing viewpoints and pushes them deeper into an intellectual silo that further entrenches and reinforces the viewpoints you found so objectionable in the first place.
And sometimes, not always, but sometimes an open, unmoderated discussion really works. To use a very select example, consider the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the filthy Westboro Baptist Church. She left that organization behind and became a powerful voice for a much more loving and tolerant worldview. What caused her to change her mind, abandon her worldview and lose most of her family, and become an advocate for everything she opposed? It was seeing his opinions challenged on Twitter. Had Twitter banned the Phelps family from the start (as I suspect Alaimo would have wanted), Megan Phelps-Roper would almost certainly continue to be a member of the Westboro Baptist Church to this day.
I admit that cases like Megan Phelps-Roper are not as common as I would like. Arguments often fail to dislodge bad ideas, especially when the mind is unwilling. But in the end, the only tools we have to oppose bad ideas are persuasion or violence. The only way to defeat bad ideas peacefully is to expose those who hold them to better ideas and engage with them, and the only way to do that is to keep the conversation open. Trying to exclude bad ideas from the conversation doesn’t make them go away – on the contrary, it virtually guarantees that those bad ideas will be here to stay.
And besides, maybe I am one who has bad views that must be dislodged. If that’s true, I want to know, and the only way for me to find out is to engage with advocates of ideas very different from mine. The more opportunities there are for this, the better.
Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and health economics and analytics consultant. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.