If You Think Free Speech Is Defined By Your Ability To Be An Asshole Without Consequence, You Don’t Understand Free Speech (But You Remain An Asshole)
from the free-speech-is-not-that dept
One of the more frustrating things about the various “debates” regarding “free speech” lately, is how little they are actually about free speech. Quite often, they are actually about people who are quite upset about having to face social consequences for their own free speech. But facing social consequences has always been part of free speech. Indeed, it’s part of the vaunted “marketplace of ideas.” If people think your ideas aren’t worth shit, they may ignore or shun you… or encourage others to do the same.
Over at The Bulwark, Prof. Nicholas Grossman has a really good article exploring Elon Musk’s attempt at reframing the debate over free speech. It is well worth reading. The crux of the argument that Grossman makes (in great detail that you should go read to have it all make sense) is that when you break down what Musk actually seems to be thinking about free speech, his definition hews quite similarly to what a lot of trolls think free speech means: the right to be a total asshole without consequence.
The article highlights what many of us have said before (disclaimer, it does link to some of my writing on the subject), that the real underlying question is not actually about free speech, but where society should draw the line on what is, and what is not, acceptable in public company. And that’s really what this is all about. Free speech, as a concept, has to fall back on whether or not the government suppresses speech. For all the talk about social consequences of free speech, or whether or not there is a “culture of free speech” or “principles of free speech,” everyone has some level of internal voice that notes what kind of speech they feel goes too far for polite company — even if they don’t think such speech should be illegal.
But, then, the question becomes, if there is some speech that I, personally, don’t wish to associate with, should others be forced to do so? And that’s where the debates over content moderation actually live. In that space that says “where should the line be drawn” for what is acceptable and what is not. And when you look closely at the actual debate, it always comes down to “I want to be a disrespectful asshole to people I don’t like, and I don’t want to face any consequences for it.”
As Grossman aptly notes, a private company deciding whether or not to host your content, isn’t really a free speech issue at all. Every platform agrees that some moderation is necessary. Every platform that has tried to do otherwise, changes course, often within days.
Multiple Twitter alternatives have been tried, all vowing to be “free speech” platforms that don’t moderate content. Every one of them—Gab, Parler, Gettr, etc.—has ended up moderating speech and enforcing rules, because what their “unfettered free speech” resulted in was doxxing, promotion of violence, and various other depravities that underscored why content moderation became the norm on the internet in the first place. And all these alternative platforms have flopped as businesses because “Twitter for people who want to post things you can’t post on Twitter” isn’t appealing to most users.
For business reasons, if nothing else, Twitter under Elon Musk would still moderate content. It might, however, change which users it prioritizes.
On top of that, he demolishes the idea that content moderation is about “leftists” trying to “censor” conservative voices:
This supposed bias is an article of faith for large swaths of the right, but when serious researchers have gone looking for it, they don’t find empirical support. A 2021 study found that, across seven advanced democratic countries, Twitter’s algorithm boosts posts by right-wing politicians and parties a little more than posts by left-wing politicians and parties. Another 2021 study set loose some politically neutral “drifter bots” on Twitter and found strong evidence of conservative bias, but “from user interactions (and abuse) rather than platform algorithms.”
Content moderation decisions can be haphazard, not least because the Big Tech business model means a small number of employees rely on algorithms and user reporting to oversee far more content than they can possibly handle. Public perception of these decisions often derives from a few anecdotes repeated by interested parties, and doesn’t match the data. For example, a 2022 paper found strong support in the U.S.—from both Democrats and Republicans—for social media companies taking action against misinformation. Of accounts banned or suspended for misinformation, more were conservative than liberal, but there was no evidence of political bias in enforcement decisions. Every banned or suspended account had clearly violated terms of service, it’s just that people on the right happened to break misinformation rules more often.
So, if there’s no actual evidence of bias, and everyone (even Musk) recognize that there needs to be some level of moderation, what is this “debate” really about. As Grossman highlights, it basically all comes down to whether or not you can be a total asshole without having a social media site say “that crosses our line of what we feel is appropriate here.” He uses the example of the Babylon Bee, whose Twitter suspension for misgendering someone has been pointed to as the catalyst for Musk to decide to buy Twitter.
But is that actually a “free speech” issue?
Of course not. You can be an asshole all you want, and you can disrespect people in obnoxious ways, proudly highlighting your own moral degeneracy all you want. You just can’t expect everyone else to support you in doing it, and not tell you when they feel your behavior has crossed their specific line, their terms of providing service.
So, yes, Elon Musk can take over Twitter, and then he can have every right to change the rules to whatever he wants. Just like Gab and Parler and GETTR and Truth Social and others have every right to set their own rules as well. But none of those are actually battles about “free speech.” They’re battles about where private entities draw the line of what they feel is and is not appropriate on their own property.
And when you look at it that way, you realize that none of Musk’s arguments are actually for free speech. They’re for his desire to redraw the line to allow more assholes on one site, without consequence. And, as Grossman notes, this insistence that it’s about free speech, really really distorts the underlying principles of free speech.
Twitter is a private company, and its rules are up to its owners, whether that’s Elon Musk or anyone else. As a supporter of the First Amendment, I accept that, even if I don’t agree with their choices. But as someone who greatly values free speech—not just legal protections from government, but a culture that fosters expression and dialogue—I refuse to cede the concept of free speech to those who think a defining feature is trolls trying to drive trans people and other minorities off social media.
And that’s exactly right. I’ll fight more than anyone to actually protect the 1st Amendment, and your rights to say what you want and to be an asshole on your own property. But there is nothing “free speech” about just demanding that private entities draw the line for “what level of asshole do we allow” somewhere more assholish.