In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument, and then it’s over to you: what do you think is true, and what do you think Cannold really believes?
Today: Following the Capitol Hill siege on January 6, US President Donald Trump was suspended then permanently banned from Twitter. He has since had his accounts on other platforms removed too. Has he been unfairly censored?
Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information deemed by governments, private institutions, or other controlling bodies as subversive of the public good. In the wake of the US president’s fomenting of violent insurrection at the nation’s capital last week, mainstream media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Twitch and Google disabled his accounts. When his supporters migrated to less policed platforms like Parler, corporate giants Amazon, Apple and Google used their combined market power to hobble that platform, too.
If that isn’t censorship, I don’t know what is.
But while western citizens tend to view the C-word negatively, the truth is that all rights come with important limitations — and the guarantee of free speech is no different.
Even in the US, where the constitution permits fewer limits than in democracies in Europe and Australia, there are categories of speech that are not protected. These include child pornography, speech that incites violence or suicide, is obscene, based on false statements of fact, is commercial in nature, constitutes the theft of another’s intellectual property rights, or is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.
Given yesterday’s overwhelming and bipartisan vote in the House yesterday to impeach the president for “inciting violence against the government of the United States”, the growing number of arrests and charges for violent crimes including forced entry and assault, plus the continued risk of violence in the lead-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the threshold for restricting the current occupant of the White House’s speech — at least for now — has unquestionably been reached.
So why all the de-platforming kerfuffle? Especially given that the president — unlike most other citizens — need not rely on social media channels to be heard. All he need do is step to the podium in the press briefing room, tap the resources of the White House press office, or use loyal networks like Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax to get his message out.
The answer is that despite all the power and responsibility social media platforms possess to moderate content on their sites, they’ve been loath to use it until recently, especially against a “newsworthy” contributor like Trump, which is why an environment of impunity, entitlement, and mob mentality has reigned.
Only when the connection between Trump’s false, hateful and dangerous speech and the violence playing out on our TV screens became undeniable, was the line in the sand finally — and fairly — enforced.
Censoring Trump is unfair. It’s also unwise.
Sure, it would have felt good to those who have spent the last four years slack-jawed at the lack of accountability for the 45th president’s harassment, incitement, and lies to see him finally get his comeuppance. But narrowing freedom on the internet to make an example of Trump will backfire and, as history shows, it will be the powerless, and US democracy itself, that will suffer most in the end.
US courts have long held that the proper response to negative speech is not “enforced silence” but “more speech”. That’s what the internet gives us: more voices and a greater diversity of ideas.
But the gifting of a bully pulpit to anyone who wants it, and the expansion of the horizonal access we have to one another without gatekeepers, has a price: one that’s personified by Donald Trump. Namely, that grifters, harrassers, liars, and criminals can roam the public square without constraint, too. No point whinging about it. That’s just the cost of doing business.
Countering such deplorables requires the same solutions that have worked since the democratic experiment began. These include defamation law as well as education, now known as digital literacy, to help media consumers verify facts, recognise fake news and push back against it.
Anything more muscular will be turned back on to the very users it was meant to protect. Noam Chomsky and 154 co-signatories of an open letter in Harper’s Magazine put it this way: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
Which side do you think Cannold sits on? And what do you believe? Send your thoughts to [email protected] with Both Sides Now in the subject line.