from the not-to-be-dogmatic... dept
Antonio García Martínez recently invited me on his podcast, The Pull Request. I was thrilled. Antonio is witty, charming, and intimidatingly brilliant (he was a PhD student in physics at Berkeley, and it shows). We did the episode, and we had a great time. But we never got to an important topic—Antonio’s take on free speech and the Internet.
In April, Antonio released a piece on his Substack, Freeze peach and the Internet, in which he asserts the existence of a “‘content moderation’ regime that is utterly re-defining speech in liberal societies.” That “regime” wants, Antonio contends, to “arbitrate truth and regulate online behavior for the sake of some supposed greater good.” It is opposed by those who still support freedom of speech. Antonio believes that the “regime” and its opponents are locked in an epic battle, and that we all must pick a side.
I’m not sure what to make of some of Antonio’s claims. We’re told, for instance, that “freedom of reach is freedom of speech”—which sounds like a nod to the New Left’s call, in the 1960s and 70s, to seize “the means of communication.” But then we’re told that “Twitter isn’t obligated to give you reach if user interest in your speech is low.” So Antonio is not demanding reach equality. “It’s simply not the case,” he says, “that freedom of speech is some legal binary switched between an abstract allow/not-allow state.” Maybe, then, the point is that we must think about the effects of algorithmic amplification. Who is ignoring or attacking that point, I do not know.
At any rate, a general critique of Antonio’s article this post is not.
In 1951 Willard Van Orman Quine, one of the great analytic philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote a short paper called “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” Quine put to the torch two key assumptions made by the logical positivists, a philosophical school popular in the first half of the century. Antonio, in his piece, promotes two key assumptions commonly made by those who fear “Big Tech censorship.” If Mike Masnick can riff on Arrow’s impossibility theorem to explain why content moderation is so difficult, I figure I can riff on Quine’s “dogmas” paper to explore two ways in which the fears of online “censorship” by private platforms are overblown. As we’re about to see, in fact, Quine’s work can teach us something valuable about content moderation.
Antonio’s first dogma is the belief that either you’re for free speech, or you’re not—you’re for the censors and the would-be arbiters of truth. His second is the belief that Twitter is the “public square,” and that the state of the restrictions there is the proper gauge of the state of free speech in our nation as a whole. With apologies to H.L. Mencken, these dogmas are clear, simple, and wrong.
Dogma #1: Free Speech: With Us or Against Us
AGM insists that the debate about content moderation boils down to a single overriding divide. “The real issue,” he says—the issue “the consensus pro-censorship crowd will never directly address”—is this:
Do you think freedom of speech includes the right to say and believe obnoxious stupid shit that’s almost certainly false, or do you feel platforms have the responsibility to arbitrate truth and regulate online behavior for the sake of some supposed greater good?
That’s it. “If you think” that “dumb and even offensive speech” is “protected speech,” you’re “on the Elon [Musk] side of this debate.” Otherwise, you think that “platforms should be putting their fingers on the scales,” and you’re therefore on “the anti-Elon” side. As if to add an exclamation point, Antonio declares: “Some countries have real free speech, and some countries have monarchs on their coins.” (I’ve seen it said, in a similar vein, that all anyone “really” cares about is “political censorship,” and that that’s the key issue the “consensus pro-censorship crowd” won’t grapple with.)
Antonio presents a nice, neat dividing line. There’s the stuff no one likes—Antonio points to dick pics, beheading videos, child sexual abuse material, and hate speech that incites violence—and then there’s people’s opinions. All the talk of content moderation is just obfuscation—an elaborate effort to hide this clear line. “Quibbling over the precise content policy in the pro-content moderation view,” Antonio warns, “is just haggling over implementation details, and essentially ceding the field to that side of the debate.”
The logical positivists, too, wanted some nice, neat lines. Bear with me.
Like most philosophers, the LPs wanted to know what we can know. One reason arguments often go in circles, or bog down in confusion, is that humans make a lot of statements that aren’t so much wrong as simply meaningless. Many sentences don’t connect to anything in the real world over which a productive argument can be had. (Extreme example: “the Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress.”) The LPs wanted to separate the wheat (statements of knowledge) from the chaff (metaphysical gobbledygook, empty emotive utterances, tribal call signs, etc.). To that end, they came up with something called the verification principle.
In 1936 a brash young thinker named A.J. Ayer—the AGM of early twentieth century philosophy—published a crisp and majestic but (as Ayer himself later admitted) often mistaken book, Language, Truth & Logic, in which he set forth the verification principle in its most succinct form. Can observation of the world convince us of the likely truth or falsity of a statement? If so, the statement can be verified. And “a sentence,” Ayer argued, “says nothing unless it is empirically verifiable.” That’s it.
Problem: mathematics and formal logic seem to reveal useful—indeed, surprising—things about the world, but without adhering to the verification principle. In the LPs’ view, though, this was just a wrinkle. They postulated a distinction between good, juicy “synthetic” statements that can be verified, and drab old “analytic” statements that, according to (young) Ayer, are just games we play with definitions. (“A being whose intellect was infinitely powerful would take no interest in logic and mathematics. For he would be able to see at a glance everything that his definitions implied[.]”)
So the LPs had two dogmas: that a sentence either does or does not refer to immediate experience, and that a sentence can be analytic or synthetic. But as Quine explained in his paper, these pat categories are rubbish. He addressed the latter dogma first, raising a number of problems with it that aren’t worth getting into here. (For one thing, definitions are set by human convention; their “correct” use is open to empirical debate.) He then took aim at the verification principle—or, as he put it, the “dogma of reductionism”—itself.
The logical positivists went wrong, Quine observed, in supposing “that each statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of confirmation or infirmation.” It’s “misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement,” he explained, because statements “face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.” There aren’t two piles of statements—those that can be verified and those that can’t. Rather, “the totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even pure mathematics and logic,” is a continuous “man-made fabric.” As we learn new things, “truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others.” Our knowledge is not a barrel of apples that we go through, apple-by-apple, keeping the ripe ones and tossing the rotten. It is, in the words of philosopher Simon Blackburn, a “jelly of belief,” the whole of which “quiver[s] in reaction to ‘recalcitrant’ or surprising experience.”
See how this ties into content moderation? Steve Bannon was booted from Twitter because he said: “I’d put [Anthony Fauci’s and Christopher Wray’s] heads on pikes. Right. I’d put them at the two corners of the White House. As a warning to federal bureaucrats: Either get with the program or you’re gone.” Is this just an outlandish opinion—some “obnoxious stupid shit that’s almost certainly false”—or is it an incitement to violence? Why is this statement different from, say, “I’d put Gentle’s and Funshine’s heads on pikes . . . as a warning to the other Care Bears”?
When Donald Trump told the January 6 rioters, “We love you. You’re very special,” was that political speech? Or was it sedition? As with “heads on pikes,” the statement itself won’t answer that question for you. The same problem arises when Senate candidate Eric Greitens invites you to go “RINO hunting,” or when a rightwing pundit announces that the Consitution is “null and void.” And who says we must look at each piece of content in isolation? Say the Oath Keepers are prevalent on your platform. They’re not planning an insurrection right now; they’re just riling each other up and getting their message out and recruiting. Is this just (dumb) political speech? Or is it more like a slowly developing beheading video? (If a platform says, “Don’t care where you go, guys, but you can’t stay here,” is it time to put monarchs on our coins?)
Similar issues arise with harassment. Doxxing, deadnaming, coordinated pile-ons, racist code words, Pepe memes—all present line-drawing issues that can’t be resolved with appeals to a simple divide between bad opinions and bad behavior. In each instance, we have no choice but to “quibbl[e] over the precise content policy.” Disagreement will reign, moreover, because each of us will enter the debate with a distinct set of political, cultural, contextual, and experiential priors. To some people, Jordan Peterson deadnaming Elliot Page is obviously harassment. To others (including, I confess, myself), his doing so pretty clearly falls within the rough-and-tumble of public debate. But that disagreement is not, at bottom, about that individual piece of content; it’s about the entire panoply of clashing priors.
It’s great that we have acerbic polemicists like Antonio. I’m glad that he’s out there pushing his conception of freedom and decrying safety-ism. (He’s on his strongest footing, I suppose, when he complains about the labeling, “fact-checking,” and blocking of Covid claims.) I hope that he and his swashbuckling ilk never stop defending “our American birthright of constant and cantankerous rebellion against the status quo.” But it’s just not true that there’s a free speech crowd and a pro-censorship crowd and nothing in between. Content moderation is complicated and difficult, and people’s views about it sit on a continuum.
Dogma #2: The Public Square, Website-by-Website
Antonio’s other dogma is the view—held by many—that Twitter is in some meaningful sense the “public square.” Antonio has some pointed criticisms for those who believe that “Twitter isn’t the public forum, and as such shouldn’t be treated with the sacrosanct respect we typically imbue anything First Amendment-related.”
As the second part of that sentence suggests, AGM gets to his destination by an idiosyncratic route. He seems to think that, in other people’s minds, the public square is where solemn and civilized discussion of public issues occurs. But as Antonio points out, there’s never been such a place. We’re Americans; we’ve always hashed things out by shouting at each other. Today, one of the places where we shout at each other is on Twitter. Ergo, in Antonio’s mind, Twitter is the public square.
I don’t get it. “Everyone invoking some fusty idea of ‘debate’ or even a healthy ‘marketplace of ideas,’” Antonio writes, “is citing bygone utopias that never were, and never will be.” Who is this “everyone”? Anyway, just because there’s a place where debate occurs does not mean that that place is the “public square.” In 2019 Antonio was saying that we should break up Facebook because it has a “stranglehold” on “attention.” So why isn’t it the public square? Perhaps it’s both Twitter and Facebook? But then what about Substack—where AGM published his piece? What about the many podcast platforms that carry his conversations? What about Rumble and TikTok? Heck, what about Techdirt? The “public square”—if we really must go about trying to precisely define such a thing—is not Twitter but the Internet.
Antonio appeals to the “conditions our democracy was born in.” The “vicious, ribald, scabrous, offensive, and often violent tumult of the Founders’ era,” he notes, “makes modern Twitter look like a Mormon picnic by comparison.” This begs the question. Look at what Americans are saying on the Internet as a whole; it’s as vicious, ribald, scabrous, offensive, and violent as you please. If what matters is that our discourse resemble that of the founding era, we can rest easy. Ben Franklin’s brother used his publication, The New-England Courant, to rail against smallpox inoculation; modern anti-vaxxers use Gab to similar effect. James Callender used newspapers and pamphlets to viciously (but often accurately) attack Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson; Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald use newsletters and podcasts to viciously (but at times accurately) attack Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. In his Porcupine’s Gazette, William Cobbett cried, “Professions of impartiality I shall make none”; the website American Greatness boasts about being called “a hotbed of far-right Trumpist nationalism.” Plus ça change . . .
Antonio says that we need “unfettered debate” in a “public square” that we “shar[e]” with “our despised political enemies.” Surveying the Internet, I’d say we have exactly that.
Now, I don’t deny that there’s a swarm of activists, researchers, academics, columnists, politicians, and government officials—not to mention the tech companies themselves—that make up what journalist Joe Bernstein calls “Big Disinfo.” Not surprisingly, the old gatekeepers of information, along with those who once benefited from greater information gatekeeping, are upset that social media allows information to bypass gates. “That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation,” Bernstein submits, “reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain.” Indeed.
But so what? There’s a certain irony here. The people most convinced that our elite institutions are inept and crumbling are also the ones most concerned that those institutions will take over the Internet, throttle speech, and (toughest of all) reshape opinion—all, presumably, without violating the First Amendment. Are the forces of Big Disinfo really that competent? Please.
Antonio and I are both fans of Martin Gurri, whose 2014 book The Revolt of the Public is basically a long meditation on why Antonio’s “content-moderation regime” can’t succeed. “A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity,” Gurri proposes. “They become authoritative.” Thanks to the Internet, however, we are living through an unprecedented information explosion. When there’s information abundance, no claim is authoritative. Many claims must compete with each other. All claims (but especially elite claims) are questioned, challenged, and ridiculed. (In this telling, our current tumult is more vicious, ribald, etc., than that of the founding era.) Unable to shut down competing claims, elites can’t speak with authority. Unable to speak with authority, they can’t shut down competing claims.
Short of an asteroid strike, World War III, the rise of a thoroughgoing despotism, or some kind of Butlerian jihad, the flow of information can’t be stopped.
Filed Under: antonio garcia martinez, content moderation, free reach, free speech, public square