Voltaire didn’t actually say, “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” but it is such a useful bon mot that someone had to make it up.
There could not be a better slogan for a pluralistic society where the right of free speech is respected. “I don’t agree with you, but we both have an equal right to speak”. “I don’t believe in your gods, but you have the right to worship them”. “I can’t stand your food, but respect your right to cook it”. “Your cause isn’t mine, but I will nod as you stand at the street corner with your sign”. “To me, bright pink is a terrible color for houses, but hey, it’s your house”. And so on.
If only, if only people didn’t turn Voltaire into a pretzel and stuff him into boxes where he doesn’t fit.
To understand what I mean, I want you to play the Fortune Cookie game where you add “in bed” to your fortune. “You are due for a promotion…IN BED!” the kids shout in unison. Snort.
So, here we go.
“I have the right to worship my gods…in your church“. “I have the right to cook and eat my food…in your kitchen“. “I want the right to make my speech and hold up my sign…in your house“.
These Voltaire-twistings are easily countered. “Look, you don’t have the right of free assembly in my house,” I could say. Or I could be more easy-going. “I don’t mind all of you gathering in my house and having your say. Just, don’t break stuff or insult people, or you have to leave; free speech or no free speech”.
Voltaire has nothing to say when a university cancels your speech because they don’t like your message, or when Twitter suspends your account. In fact, according to Section 230 of the CDA (that has become known as the First Amendment of the Internet), social media companies have a free speech right to moderate your speech on their platforms as they see fit.
Two owners of some highly prized real estate fell into this confusion over the past couple weeks.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg refused to flag Trump’s false statements as false, saying that social media companies should not be arbiters of truth, setting off an unprecedented dissent from his usually docile workforce, and a few resignings.
The other piece of prized real estate that was cheaply given away was the New York Times op-ed page, which they gave to Senator Tom Cotton to showcase his argument that troops should be sent in to quell disorder in American cities with an “overwhelming show of force”. While they didn’t agree with his viewpoint, editor James Bennet explained, they needed to show their readers a counter-argument to the editorial standpoint. Staff editor Bari Weiss turned the debate over it into yet another Voltairian free speech battle. This was an instance of “safetyism,” she said: when people’s right to feel emotionally safe trumps others’ right to free speech—in this case, Sen. Cotton’s.
Clearly, this is another Pretzelization of Voltaire. Sen. Cotton’s free speech rights would have remained uneclipsed even if he had not been given space in the paper of record—just as I still have my free speech rights, even though my big break on the pages of NYT has yet to come.
The right of free speech is neither Facebook’s nor NYT’s to bestow; by withholding space on their platform, they are not taking it away. The idea that a very voluble President and a decisively unshy Senator would need these companies to bestow speech upon them is laughable.
It is not the speech that they have the power to bestow. It is the hearing.
Not many people understand (as NYU professor Jay Rosen explains) how the economy has shifted: we now have a glut of content and a glut of means of self-publishing; the precious resource is no longer the ability to speak, it is the ability to be heard. Facebook and NYT wield millions of eyeballs; they can bestow attention. It is the amplification of content in the case of Facebook, and it is the credentialing of content in the case of the NYT.
There is no First Amendment right to be heard.
Given this framing, let us look at why the arguments presented by Facebook and NYT management were wrong
The one great tell of Mark Zuckerberg is that when he feels cornered, he escapes up into the clouds, into grandiose arguments about free speech. The truth is, Facebook acts as the de facto arbiter of truth all day and every day with billions of posts. In two ways.
One, that due to the enormous pushback they received after the 2016 election and the genocide in Myanmar, they have agreed, over and over, in many different forums including Congressional hearings, that they are trying to quell misinformation, hate speech, and calls to violence on their platform and that they will do better.
It is mystifying to me how one can quell misinformation on one’s platform without being arbiters of truth.
In fact, the teams put to work on this problem appear to be doing a decent job. Just last week, Facebook removed 30 accounts belonging to white supremacist groups that were fomenting violence during the Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook contracts with fact-checkers who review content for false news; that content is filtered out or devalued. Sometimes these fact-checkers are even a little extra jittery: for example, when they removed a political ad made by the Lincoln Group, saying that the ad’s claim that Trump’s tax cuts had helped only Wall Street, not Main Street, was false.
Two, that even before Facebook belatedly started addressing the problem of misinformation on their platform, their entire business model has been based on amplifying some posts and devaluing others. That amplification—how Facebook’s algorithm chooses which posts to show in newsfeeds, so that millions of eyeballs see it—is Facebook’s editor; it performs the task that opinion editors and news editors perform at media shops: choosing which stories to highlight, and where.
They are already choosing. We are only asking them to choose right.
Now, for the NYT. I already addressed Bari Weiss’s Pretzel Voltaire argument. But opinion editor James Bennet’s argument that they sought out Sen. Cotton’s opinion because it was newsworthy is also wrong.
That a sitting Senator argues for sending in the military to quell mostly peaceful protests is certainly newsworthy. But, as Vox reporter David Roberts aptly put it, then it belongs in the news section, with some analysis of its misstatements of fact, and some context about how it lies outside of the American tradition of never unleashing the army on its own citizens.
An opinion page is not the avenue for presenting news. The error there is the same error made by those who want to keep monuments to Confederate leaders as “history lessons”.
One doesn’t learn history from monuments, but rather from history books. Monuments have a different purpose—to deify and memorialize that which a culture looks up to. In a similar way, one gets news from the news section. The purpose of an op-ed page is different: it credentials arguments as having merit, and being made in good faith—even when the editors don’t agree with its conclusions.
That is what the NYT did. It marked Sen. Cotton’s argument as being worthy of the imprimatur of the NYT. Notwithstanding even the factual errors in the piece drawn from right-wing misinformation, it gave its stamp of approval to Sen. Cotton’s explicitly authoritarian argument, and drew it into respectable society.
On the face of it, Facebook and NYT are vastly different companies. But I lumped them together for the sake of this argument because I feel like the error they made is the same—that of moral cowardice.
Bari Weiss edges up to this realization in her Twitter thread. Maybe Sen. Cotton’s views fall outside the limits, she says. If so, she continues, it means the view of more than half of Americans also fall outside the limits. She leaves that rhetorical point hanging, but her point seems to be that to condemn the views of half your countrymen as beyond the pale is unthinkable.
No, it isn’t. No—it most certainly is not! Moral progress has always been driven by people who stood alone when necessary—and did not substitute their own moral judgment with the judgment of the majority. It isn’t even true that more than half of Americans would support an argument such as the one Sen. Cotton made.
Facebook executives have consistently allowed themselves to be bullied by the right’s working of the refs in order to proliferate fake news and extremism. Despite Zuckerberg’s stated goals of promoting community, and despite their hand-wringing apologies when one or other pratfall hits the news, a recent WSJ report shows how they shelved their own internal research that showed that their algorithms pushed people into divisive, extremist rabbit holes—and shelved it explicitly so that they didn’t lose their conservative audience.
Now, can my argument not be turned against myself? Don’t Facebook and NYT have the right to run their platforms as they see fit (a free speech right, no less), without a lowly consumer like me having a say?
Well, of course they do! In fact, they could shut out the entire chorus of liberal dissenters by simple honesty: if, as law writer Elie Mystal says, if they simply said “I WANTED THE DAMN CLICKS” the hand-wringing could be ended overnight. Fox News, the Daily Caller, and other outlets are out and proud about their right-wing bias. They do as they like.
But with both Facebook and the NYT, they want the benediction of being considered essential to liberal values in some way; they want to attract the sort of earnest do-gooder talent that makes their profit-machines go brrrr; while making more and more tortured “contortions” (in the words of a Facebook employee) in order to treat their right-wing benefactors with kid gloves.
This is why they present their appeasement of the right with a liberal sheen: as striving for balance; not arbiting truth; staying neutral; etc.
But amplifying lies is not a liberal virtue—in fact, it is a tool of fascists. When the balance you strive for is leading you into promoting lies, that balance is leading you astray. When the neutrality you strive for is leading you into substituting your moral judgment with the needs of the powerful, that neutrality is merely cowardice.
(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.)