Shallow Fakes: Why Facebook Was Right Not To Delete The Doctored Video Of Nancy Pelosi
from the defending-free-speech dept
We live in a Manichean political world where every person and institution is said to be either good or evil. Facebook used to be in the good column; since November 2016, they are listed among the evil ones, oddly by both left and right. The truth: Facebook is a tremendously successful and innovative business that nevertheless makes mistakes. But beyond making its users happy, Facebook also does good. By defending free speech, for example, at a difficult time.
The case may be familiar to you. (The fact that the case is likely familiar to you is important as we shall see). Recently someone created a distorted video of House leader Nancy Pelosi. Many thought the distortions suggested Pelosi was drunk. She was not. The video warped her image for political purposes (or perhaps, just for fun). More bluntly, the speech in question – the edited video – was a lie.
The question is not whether political speakers lie. They do and always have. Of course, everyone believes their team upholds truth while the other team lies. As Morrisey sang, “Everyone lies, nobody minds.” Well, everyone minds the other team’s lies and somehow ignores their own.
Political speech comprises lies, truth, and much uncertainty. Who should decide which speech falls into which category? Not the elected officials and unelected bureaucrats we call “the government.” The First Amendment and the courts preclude the government from determining truth (and lies). Elected officials want to be popular and win re-election; speech critical of them works against attaining those goals. Elected officials tend to see such criticism as “lies.” I would if I were an elected official. So would you. The incentives are terrible. Censorship would be a natural response. Hence we have a First Amendment, an unnatural state-of-affairs undergirded in the United States by fifty years of tradition, that is, of judicial doctrine.
So who separates truth and lies (and the in-between) in our unnatural state of free speech? Listeners, citizens, and voters. That’s our democratic faith, or our liberal faith, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a real source of national pride, our unnatural state of speaking freely. It’s a foundation of any American nationalism worth honoring.
But people do lie, and the lies can have terrible consequences. True enough. But our liberal faith and our unnatural state have an answer to lies: more speech. Consider the Pelosi incident. More speech revealed the lie in the video almost immediately. It is true that humans are lazy or uninterested and ignore the revelations of “more speech.” Or they seek only information that confirms their hatred and prejudices. In other words, listeners, citizens and voters often fail to live up to the demands of our liberal democratic faith. To remedy that failure shall we thus turn to “truth seeking” politicians who are too often thin-skinned and ambitious?
With social media we have a third player involved, the companies (above all, Facebook) that own and oversee these platforms for speech. The companies have a right to, and sometimes do, suppress speech on their platforms. The answer to their mistakes in this regard is… more speech. But the companies also rise to the occasion at times by defending our democratic faith in free speech. In the wake of the Pelosi incident, Facebook decided to leave the Pelosi video up on its platform. Monika Bickert, their head of content moderation at Facebook, affirmed that those who heard and saw the video should decide its truth or falsity. The alternative would have been Facebook taking down the video in the name of truth (and against lies). There are many problems with that alternative, not least Facebook would find itself fighting with, or subordinate to powerful politicians like Ms. Pelosi. So the company left the ultimate judgment to citizens and voters. They followed, in short, the American way.
But many people apparently do not like leaving judgments about truth to “more speech” and to Americans. Bickert was pilloried. For her part, Ms. Pellosi said Facebook acted as “willing enablers of the Russian interference in [the 2016] election.” To be blunt again, she accused Facebook of treason.
But Monika Bickert was the real American here, at least judging by our long tradition of free speech and respect for the intelligence of citizens and voters. That tradition is under fire. Perhaps it always has been. But we might wonder if our political class is abandoning freedom of speech.
Many on the right have decided that Carl Schmitt is correct when he wrote “politics is constituted by the distinction between friends and enemies.” The tech firms are perfect “enemies” for the populist right: filled with “woke” young people, located in California, and using technology few understand. The left has been abandoning free speech for a long time because “the corporations started winning” First Amendment cases. They also often judge constitutional rules by their effects on friends and enemies. In the name of that harsh doctrine, both right and left are abandoning the older faith that Americans have the right and the ability to discern truth from lies.
But there are still genuine conservatives and real liberals out there who believe in free speech. Last week Facebook paid a hefty price to be their friend.
John Samples is a Vice President at the Cato Institute