Pretty stunning to see L. Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the WSJ (and now a columnist) make the argument that shutting down social media is fine and dandy
, if governments say
that it's to stop bad stuff (as defined by those governments). Specifically, he defends UK politicians calling for
blocks on social media in response to the London riots. Crovitz's reasoning isn't just weak, it's full of bizarre logical fallacies.
But all uses of technology are not equally virtuous. Enthusiasm for technology should not lead to a moral and political relativism that confuses crime with free speech and the British police with authoritarian governments.
No one has claimed that the two are the same. The point, which seems to sail way, way, way over Crovitz' head, is that the ability to block communications in one case quite easily leads to it being used in the other. Bizarrely, Crovitz then defends the highly questionable BART cell service shutdown
in response to the threat of protesters, by saying it's fine because "the world did not end."
And the world did not end when police did indeed temporarily shut down social media. This happened last week in San Francisco, Calif., one of America's most liberal cities.
Last I checked, the Constitution of the United States says, "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." It does not say, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech... but it can if the world won't end from doing so." From there, Crovitz just gets weird:
Permitting peaceful protests while stopping violence seems like a reasonable compromise.
Let's be clear: when discussing the First Amendment, the phrase "reasonable compromise" generally means someone taking away your rights. The problem, which Crovitz can't seem to get his head around, is that you can't set up a system that properly determines what speech is allowed and what speech is violence-inducing. People who trample on the First Amendment assume, falsely, that it's easy to tell one form of speech from another. If someone is committing violence, arrest them for committing violence
. Don't take away their free speech rights.
From there, Crovitz insists that China's free speech trampling is different. Why? Because it is! Don't you see? The problem is that it's very much in the eye of the beholder. China continues to insist that its trampling of free speech is a "reasonable compromise" because it keeps "bad stuff" away from the people. How do you determine where that line is? Crovitz pretends its easy. Our founding fathers knew that it was not, which is why they specifically wanted to make sure that "dangerous speech" was allowed.
Then Crovitz jumps into obnoxious false dichotomy territory:
Robert Andrews, a reporter for the paidcontent:UK website, asked Twitter users whether they would prefer to keep the service available so they could chat about the television music competition "The X Factor" or let the service be closed temporarily "so that fellow citizens like shopkeepers need not be assaulted, have their property and premises pilfered and trashed, and so that they need not live in fear."
Though it was an admittedly unscientific survey, Mr. Andrews nevertheless reports that every Twitter respondent opted for "The X Factor." He concludes: "So addicted are we to our electronic connections, we simply cannot bear to be parted, for even an hour or two, in the name of public safety while London burns."
Or perhaps the people responding to Andrews recognized the ridiculousness of the question, and knew damn well, that social media is used for a hell of a lot more than discussing some TV show... and that allowing communications platforms to be shut down, because the government and Crovitz think "bad stuff" might happen, is a path to censorship. It's not that people are "addicted to electronic communications." It's that people believe in their rights to free speech. Taking away social media wouldn't stop London from burning, but it might harm some pretty core principles of democracy and the ability to speak your mind.
Techno-utopians would like to believe that digital technology is always a force for good, but technology can also accelerate evil. As Thomas Hobbes would say, without the enforcement of rules for ordered liberty, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," both in the real world and online.
And since we're doing a grand tour of logical fallacies, Crovitz closes with a claim that is simply unsubstantiated because it's false. I've never heard the folks normally associated with "techno-utopianism" ever
claim that digital technology is always a force for good. In fact, I've almost always heard them claim that technology itself is neutral and can be used for both good and bad. If anything, people tend to note that it can help amplify both good and bad uses. But the point
that they make is that you can't somehow cherry pick the "good" stuff to allow and the "bad" stuff to ban, because that always
fails in the long run. It always leads to greater than "reasonable" censorship and always leads to important critical speech being stifled. Crovitz may have no problem with trampling on the rights of others. I, on the other hand, have serious problems with it -- and with the WSJ advocating what appears to be flat out censorship.