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Truth vs. trolling — finding a balance in today's society: James Miller

Posted 5/2/18

I’ve never been to the website Reddit, but if I were to visit, I can’t imagine my stay would be enlightening, let alone comfortable.

I gathered as much from a recent profile of the …

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Truth vs. trolling — finding a balance in today's society: James Miller

Posted

I’ve never been to the website Reddit, but if I were to visit, I can’t imagine my stay would be enlightening, let alone comfortable.

I gathered as much from a recent profile of the “front page of the Internet” published in The New Yorker. No more sophisticated than a 1990s-era chat room and notoriously known as a haven for bestiality and minor pornography, Reddit is, as writer Andrew Marantz describes it, “proudly untamed, one of the last Internet giants to resist homogeneity.”

But, unlike the Hobbesian state of nature it prides itself on embodying, there is plenty of homogeneity to Reddit, mainly in the form of ever-increasing censorship. A small revolt is forming after CEO Steve Huffman responded to public pressure last fall by banning hate groups, including explicitly pro-Nazi and racist “subreddits.”

The banned iconoclasts were quick to decry the curbing of free speech. Like others who have protested the clamping down on distasteful expression on other social media platforms, their cries go unheard. Employees of Twitter, the chat app frequented by those rattled by attention-deficit disorder, were recently exposed for deliberately suppressing conservative users. YouTube, that democratic platform for aspiring auteurs, has a habit of demonetizing right-wing voices, most notably the Trump-supporting sisterly duo Diamond and Silk.

Then there’s the big daddy of them all, Facebook. Widely blamed for throwing the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump because of a few troll farms in remote shtetls, Mark Zuckerberg’s social leviathan has been maligned to the point of having a worse public reputation than Goebbels. Zuckerberg has responded just as any frail tech genius would under severe public censure: by conceding to the call for censorship. Facebook’s crackdown on news generation has put an even tighter squeeze on an industry already gasping in a vice-grip.

Amidst this Internet-wide dragnet, many on the political right have expressed concern that social media is infringing upon the right of free speech on its platforms.

It’s not that a small group of conservatives is being deprived of the ability to actually use Facebook and YouTube, but, rather, that an unequal standard is being applied.

Like Homer Plessy objecting to racially segregated rail cars, they argue a “separate but equal” doctrine is being unjustly enforced. Liberals with unorthodox views continue to be able to utilize the full functionality of these digital daises, while right-of-center commentators are stashed behind restrictive age controls or are relegated to unsearchable pockets tucked deep away on site.

Some more prominent conservative thinkers are not disturbed by this trend. Radio host Glenn Beck famously defended Facebook as a private company that should be able to determine the content on its platform. Libertarians reflexively agree with this sentiment, asserting the unquestioned right of business to be business.

That argument may hold for someone’s jerry-built hagiographical Hitler blog. But when a private citizen is able to employ one social platform to reach the White House, or a single company, so bloated by its endless reach, absorbs an entire industry like the blob, such as Facebook has done with digital publishing, public care is warranted.

So what, then, should be done about large social media companies creating an uneven public square that everyone is supposed to have equal footing on? Before answering that question, it should be asked: what is the purpose of speech, and what function does it play in a flourishing society?

Baruch Spinoza was one of the first philosophers to seriously defend free speech, attesting that any government that tried to stifle open and vigorous thought was the epitome of despotism. He wrote: “The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.”

At the time, Spinoza was reacting to his exile from a Portuguese-Jewish congregation in Amsterdam. Jewish authorities had issued a herem — an order of exclusion — after Spinoza questioned God’s divinity within the Hebrew Bible.

Credit where credit is due: It takes a lot of gall to demand a religious sect accept you after you insult their deity. Such imprudence likely made Spinoza one of the first bratty, self-righteous cousins who, every Thanksgiving, interrupts every conservative family member with an obnoxious, elongated, “Well, actually...”

Spinoza’s impolitic behavior shows the limits of free speech absolutism. Sociologist Philip Rieff defined culture as a series of “thou shalt nots.” Any reasonable society imposes rational limits on certain rights. Even within the realm of government, the First Amendment doesn’t protect all expression. You can’t mail your local DMV clerks threatening letters about how you wish to pull their fingernails out one by one for making you miss half a day at work waiting to get your car retitled.

“Freedom of speech is not a first-order good; it exists only to facilitate the flourishing of the society along the lines established by those principles,” Matthew Walther writes. Speech, thought and expression are valued not for themselves, but for what they contribute to the overall good.

In that sense, perhaps social media giants should be held to account if found they are unfairly discriminating against certain political views. Silicon Valley already despises the Republican Party; it’s not like there would be any love lost if President Donald Trump imposed some form of the fairness doctrine the FCC used to uphold for cable news and political talk radio.

But perhaps the best way to go about the issue of speech and its limits is to take the approach Father Richard John Neuhaus took to fomenting dialogue in his own ecumenical journal “First Things.” Neuhaus referred to himself as a “liberal” because he used liberal means — that is, open and respectable discussion — to reach conservative ends.

When a conservative is banned on Twitter, first find out why. Is it because he or she led an online mob against an actress? Or is it because they questioned the beliefs of someone else, earnestly in good faith? The same goes for speakers invited to college campuses. Yes, many university students are ill-tempered, unlearned children who are too used to getting their way. But when someone like Richard Spencer, a snotty, racist provocateur with a bad haircut, is given a veto to voicing his white separatist beliefs, let’s just say I’m not pulled to join the ramparts of willing warriors for free expression.

Where speech demands defending is when someone like Dr. John McAdams, former professor at Marquette University, is fired for defending the right of a student to speak approvingly of the Christian understanding of marriage. Or when a proven scholar like Charles Murray is violently chased out of his own lecture on a liberal arts campus.

We can tell the difference between honest exploration of truth and purposeless trolling. So why not use our perception more often? There is middle ground to be found somewhere between blanket bans, communicative anarchy, and arbitrary prohibition. Let’s find it.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.