November 15th, 2019
“Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant”. Justice Louis Brandeis is credited with this affirmation of the legitimacy of unrestricted, even hate, speech. His argument is that exposing hate and dishonesty for what they are will rebut them more effectively than outlawing any speech, and on the whole, that approach has defined the American ethos and approach to speech in the public domain. In the US, behavior should have limitations, speech needn’t.
Such sentiments are not intuitively obvious, nor universally endorsed. Germany, for example, outlaws Holocaust Denial and Nazism since it wants to make it absolutely clear that the facts related to the nadir of human history, and their role in that, are not negotiable. Their Post-War leaders saw that the popular will can be manipulated too easily with horrendous results, so rebuilding and sustaining a democratic society requires no less than an absolute commitment to the truth. Truth and accountability matter; the risks, they felt and still do, are too great to compromise.
This very argument underscores the current debate about whether there should be limits on what social networks may or may not publish with impunity. In the world and age in which we now live, so very different from the times of Brandeis, hate and falsehood are the all too frequent currency of willful manipulators with nefarious intent who use social media to shape the world to their own interests.
The reason this is so difficult is that, unlike the times of Brandeis, there is now an anarchization of knowledge. Too many assume that if they see it on the internet it must be true – or true-ish, or, conversely, they disbelieve all information assuming that whatever they hear or read is no more than opinion. A sobering example of this is Climate Change. If one looks hard enough, one can find someone online who sounds authoritative who disagrees with 99% of the scientists and the overwhelming evidence. If one wants support for “denial” one can find it. It is all too easy, in this early stage of on-line epistemology, to believe and espouse falsehood. Other examples abound.
The headline examples that have demanded our recent attention are the decisions of Facebook [and others, but FB is the prime example] to allow posts that are clearly dishonest, purposely politically malignant, and spew destructive hatred, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of hatred. Their response to date is aligned with the Brandeis proposition that an informed reader can make an educated judgment. They are simply allowing open speech. [For this discussion I am discounting the profit motive issue since this debate would apply even if that weren’t a factor.]
Sadly, those arguments are neither persuasive nor morally acceptable in this era. The manipulation of the US election system – and others – has been unequivocally demonstrated. The destructive power of “believers” and those easily manipulated by disinformation and outright lies has shown itself to have lethal implications. If FB is the source of mediated or, more accurately, unmediated information for billions, they have a responsibility to understand the implications of what they choose to allow.
Having said all of this, perhaps the only responsible action on my part would be to close my Facebook account. After all, as some argue, only if they see that they have crossed a line that their customers cannot abide will they re-think their stance on what may be published or purchased.
But before making that decision, I want to take a step back: Facebook and other social networks have been transformative in creating virtual but authentic connections that otherwise would be lost. Some years ago, I wrote about how virtual communities have recreated communal connections after years of increased atomization. Suburbanization, for example, has served to isolate people from one another except in limited structured contexts. Gone are the incidental interactions that characterize organic community. All too often in the modern era, we don’t hear about the events in people’s lives, albeit most of them are transient and even trivial, that fill in the gaps between life’s chapter headings. And very often we don’t hear about the lives and deaths of people who are in your life but not central to it.
At least until Facebook entered the scene. Suddenly we see the trivial and the transient and the indulgent from an ever growing “neighborhood” of our choosing. We also keep up with events in the lives of people who may be around the corner or around the world many of whom may not be in our inner circle but about whom we care. How often have I learned about rites of passage or career changes or recognitions or even the passing of people who matter to me!
Some readers may recall an article I wrote 10 years ago after my mother’s death. I compared the responses at that time to those of the time when my father died a decade earlier. When my father died, I was still employed in a relatively well-known capacity and had a long list of related affiliations. Announcements were shared among the organizations with which I had a formal connection. Many expressed condolences and sympathy. When my mother died, I was self employed and had few ongoing professional affiliations, and the only announcement of her passing was on Facebook. Much to my surprise, the number of people who expressed condolences, even in person, far exceeded the earlier time. By a lot. [Others have shared similar experiences.]
I confess, I have had to learn a lot about what, when, and if to post. As time has passed, I have learned to be more disciplined about how I use social media. No one really needs to know every restaurant I visit, how often I am on Amtrak to NY, and all sorts of other trivia that once upon a time characterized my all too frequent postings. But many do appreciate when I have participated in significant meetings somewhere in the world, or been together with friends and colleagues who are also “friends” with lots of others, and even my Starbucks C.O.L. index has its followers. And I appreciate those kinds of postings from others. These may not be life changing events or life chapter headings, but they matter. They matter because they give a vibrancy and vitality to the everyday context of life: to my life and the lives of many who are part of the totality of what it means to live in communities, even when virtual.
That kind of incidental knowledge was what people used to take for granted in their daily lives, and we forgot about for a while. The reason FB is so popular is that it has allowed people to restore this natural kind of incidental knowledge and relationship. It works because it is real. And I am not sure how I would replace those kinds of interactions if I were to drop this most social of social networks. I have learned that many people matter to me, that I am glad to learn about some part of their daily lives, that it matters that I hear about their major life events even if at a distance of time and space.
So, indeed, it is a dilemma. Facebook as a company needs to be held accountable for major self-serving decisions that impact all of us in dangerous ways. Facebook as a system is necessary to help maintain social connections and virtual communities that impact so many of us in productive ways.
For now, with ambivalence, I have decided to stay the course [as some readers now see for themselves.] But it doesn’t exempt us from insisting that FB publicly calls out lies, rumors, and rejects all on-line presence from those who would distort and destroy.
No doubt that is very hard – for them; losing our democracy would be much harder – for all of us.