The lesson of the last year is an obvious one: misinformation kills. From anti-vaxxers to Donald Trump’s disproven electoral fraud allegations, online political movements based on untruths have shoved and shouted their way into real life politics, bringing chaos with them. It all reveals a sobering reality: that no matter how much information we have at our fingertips, our view of the truth can still be warped and distorted by those with less than wholesome aims. We are all susceptible – and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves.
In prior decades, liberals have (soundly) argued that the best antidote to authoritarianism is the free exchange of information. During the eras of the USSR and Nazi Germany, it became clear that despotic regimes routinely limit public access to information, with a view to altering public opinion. This technique lives on in countries such as China. But the last week has shown us that the debate on free information isn’t this simple. In the era of the internet, wannabe despots are limited in their options for shutting down free flow of information to voters and citizens. The internet is in many ways an antidote to the older forms of censorship. But they have discovered that cluttering the information landscape with fake news sites designed to create doubt in the “mainstream narrative” (read: fact-based and verified news) proves just as seductive as those older, less subtle, techniques.
Sowing the seeds of doubt to engender confusion isn’t new. It is a technique first used by private industry many decades ago – more specifically, by the tobacco industry. A cigarette executive from the J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was quoted in 1969 in a now-infamous memo that “doubt is our product…since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
The executive was referring, of course, to the mounting evidence that tobacco smoking was causing a litany of health problems, not least numerous cancers. Industry executives, knowing they couldn’t disprove the aggressive and indisputable tide of studies linking tobacco smoking to early mortality, instead made it their mission to muddy the waters just enough that those tempted to try their product would be able to assuage any nagging doubts about health. For many decades, this technique worked. And in Donald Trump we see this campaigning style reborn. The surface issue has changed, but the tactic is identical: sow enough doubt among susceptible voters that they come to believe a free and fair election has been stolen by the Democrats. Trump can sit back while they storm the US’s government buildings in the name of “liberty”, unaware that they are, in fact, staging a coup against the democratically elected President Elect.
The greatest casualty in this scenario is the truth. Few, though, notice the problem posed to the liberally-minded, who overwhelmingly view the truth as paramount. Because now they are divided between those who regard Trump’s Twitter suspension as a limit on free speech rights, and those who think otherwise.
Some liberals are, understandably, worried that Twitter’s quasi-monopoly over social media gives it a vast amount of soft power over average citizens. That fear is justified. In today’s tech landscape, denying a person a mainstream social media account effectively boots that person out of mainstream discourse. Those that take this view are concerned that the suspension of Donald Trump sets a bad precedent and that, by suspending him, Twitter is itself interfering in democratic processes. As much as they may dislike Trump and the things he says, they take the view that moderate and democratic political leaders could similarly be suspended in the future.
I personally take the opposite view: that Twitter is a private company and all users resign editorial rights to Twitter when they sign up for an account. There is no inalienable right to a Twitter account. Twitter’s decisions to suspend accounts is an exercise of its private property rights, and forcing it to publish the President’s writing and videos (or that of any other political authority) would have more in common with despotic regimes than democracies. It’s countries such as China that force private publishers to toe the party line, not the US. What’s more, Trump’s support of terrorists engaged in an effort to overturn a democratic election isn’t a contribution to the “marketplace of ideas”, as these liberals often say. Hypothetical musings over the national debt are not threatened by Twitter’s refusal to publish Trump’s minute-long video last week, in which he declared his love for those trying to overturn the US Capitol in his name. Lying about the outcome of an election isn’t an idea in the philosophical sense – despite what some liberals believe. As for precedents, I personally would feel quite comfortable with Twitter removing the account of a Democratic President found to have incited a mob to try and overturn an election. This isn’t a matter of left and right politics.
I have to take these liberals’ argument to its logical conclusion. If Twitter were truly unfettered in the content it publishes, we would likely see it even more awash with paedophiles, pornography and other types of unsavoury content than it already is. Those who argue that Twitter should take no role in policing speech on the site do not take the line that paeophiles should remain on the platform: for them, they clearly believe that suspending Trump, while he is involved in an attempted coup against a democratic nation, crosses a line that suspending paedophiles doesn’t (which is, of course, their right). The debate over Trump’s Twitter suspension would be far more straightforward if this stance was stated openly.
Twitter has become the equivalent of a newspaper letters page, but in which the newspaper editor has no say over which letters are published. Those same individuals who are concerned about suspensions’ “limit” on free speech do not demand the editor of The Guardian publishes anti-vaxx content that is sent to them in the mail. I have to ask: is there any difference?
Whatever happens next, it’s important that liberals engage with one another and attempt to resolve this dispute. A schism such as this at the heart of liberal thought creates more opportunities for potential despots. While the liberal world arguing over what George Orwell would have thought about Trump’s twitter suspension, the real question is about what liberalism looks like – or should look like – in this information landscape. It’s best summarised in one question. Is it better for a private company to wield the power of “censorship”, or the state?