In the early 18th century, satirist Jonathan Swift observed, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect… like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”
It is a message that both stewards and mouthpieces of the largest media (and social media) platforms would do well to heed. This is particularly true given how the current state of American democracy, modern political discourse, and the very nature of truth are increasingly infected by conspiracy theories, hate groups, and invective designed to bully, silence, and undermine. While these are not easy afflictions to heal, and perhaps impossible to cure, one of the greatest threats to recovery remains the stubborn (and often idealistic) unwillingness of those who wield the scalpels to cut away the sickness.
Instead, they claim the god of absolute, unfettered speech is the best and only way to cure it. But if we have learned anything from history, research or even a cursory glance around the current political landscape, it is that trying to combat the disease of disinformation with more speech only makes the patient sicker.
In the past week, this dynamic has been best represented by the relationship between two men: Alex Jones, an increasingly popular right-wing extremist and conspiracy theorist who the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America,” and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who recently went on Sean Hannity’s radio show to once again defend Jones’ presence on his social media platform.
Alex Jones has said many things. He accused special counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller of being a pedophile and threatened to shoot him. He said that Jennifer Lopez should go to Somalia and “get gang raped.” He claimed that former President Barack Obama was a member of al-Qaeda and that Hillary Clinton ran a satanic child sex ring out of a pizzeria — a claim that inspired one of his fans to invade the pizzeria with a rifle and fire off rounds. Most infamously, Jones promoted — and continues to promote — a conspiracy that the Sandy Hook shootings, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults, was a hoax, a conspiracy theory that has enabled vicious, years-long harassment campaigns against the parents of murdered children.
Jones built his following primarily through videos and podcasts that were amplified by the megaphones of Apple, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. But over the last several days, Apple, YouTube, and Facebook decided to remove him (mostly) from their platforms. YouTube said Jones violated its guidelines around hate speech and harassment; Facebook said he violated its community standards against hate speech and bullying; Apple said its decision was based on the company’s refusal to tolerate hate speech.
Twitter’s rules clearly forbid hateful conduct, harassment, violent threats, wishes of physical harm on individuals, and specifically the harassment of protected groups and people who have been the victims of mass murder. Dorsey, however, decided to take a different tack. He announced that Twitter decided not to ban or even suspend Alex Jones, and “the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules.”
The next day on the Hannity show, Dorsey elaborated. “We do believe in the power of free expression, but we always need to balance that with the fact that bad-faith actors intentionally try to silence other voices.”
As has often been the case with Twitter’s haphazard enforcement, it is difficult to reconcile this with the fact that Jones is a bad-faith actor by his own admission — or at least the admission of his lawyer during a custody battle. “He’s playing a character,” Jones’ attorney Randall Wilhite told the judge during a pretrial hearing, claiming that Jones should be held no more accountable for his actions than Jack Nicholson would for playing the Joker in a Batman movie. Rather than a fiery iconoclast telling controversial truths, he’s simply “a performance artist.” What, if anything, does it mean to say that you are concerned about bad actors when you also vociferously defend providing a megaphone to perhaps the most extreme bad-faith commentator in political discourse?
Twitter, which once identified itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” has long listed toward the sort of free speech absolutism that says absolutely anything goes, so long as it isn’t overtly criminal. It’s a popular idea among the Silicon Valley cyberlibertarians who hold some the most powerful positions at tech companies and, not coincidentally, a founding principle of the internet itself.
There lies, within this absolutism, an often very idealistic and sincere belief: if we simply allow all speech to compete in the free marketplace of ideas, then the best, most productive, and most truthful ideas will win out. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the best answer to bad, shitty, and sometimes even abusive speech is simply more speech.
Dorsey echoed this belief in his thread defending Jones as a legitimate and not-at-all-in-violation-of-Twitter-rules user: “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
Again, it’s a nice idea, even a beautiful one. For a long time, it was one that I, like a lot of journalists, wanted to believe in. Who doesn’t want to think that the truth will always win in the end, that information not only wants to be free, but that this freedom will lead us toward a more just world — especially when it is your job to share information?
But in our current moment, it is a dangerously naïve idea. While the internet has led to the promotion of important voices we might not have otherwise heard, the last decade has demonstrated with searing clarity that this idea has far more powerfully to the amplification of lies, manipulation, and an epistemological collapse that has deformed human discourse and undermined the very notion of truth.
A growing body of research has demonstrated that the distorted light of modern media does not always lead to illumination. In a 2015 paper, MIT professor of political science Adam Berinsky found that rather than debunking rumors or conspiracy theories, presenting people with facts or corrections sometimes entrenched those ideas further.
Another study by Dartmouth researchers found that “if people counter-argue unwelcome information vigorously enough, they may end up with ‘more attitudinally congruent information in mind than before the debate,’ which in turn leads them to report opinions that are more extreme than they otherwise would have had.”
A 2014 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics similarly found that public information campaigns about the absence of scientific evidence for a link between autism and vaccinations actually “decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes.” When people feel condescended to by the media or told that they are simply rubes being manipulated — even by expert political manipulators — they are more likely to embrace those beliefs even more strongly.
Makes sense, as long as @jack understands: principles enforced impartially will lead to an imbalanced result under conditions of asymmetric polarization, where one side is drifting toward the extreme at a faster rate than the other. If you grasp that, then get ready for the heat. https://t.co/VEfJ1wXax5
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) August 8, 2018
So in the current environment of partisan distrust — where only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in mass media — fact-checking and vigorous journalism are simply not enough to combat lies. Worse, among those who already believe those lies, they may be even more likely to double down on beliefs that have no basis in scientific or empirical truth in the face of corrective facts.
The realities of our current discourse are antithetical not only to the ideals of Silicon Valley moguls like Dorsey, but to the many journalists who responded to conspiracies like the pizza sex ring rumors by attempting to loudly and publicly refute them. As technology and social media scholar danah boyd noted in a truly revelatory podcast about internet misinformation, the precise goal of bad actors and conspiracy theorists is to get public attention at all costs. It is an aim that folds so neatly and catastrophically into the desire to promote truth and speech at all costs that it is hard not to marvel at its covalent destructiveness.
In the case of Pizzagate, as it became known, “the news media did exactly what it was expected,” says boyd. “They picked up this ridiculous conspiracy story that was flowing around through conservative ecosystems, to negate it. And what they did they motivated hundreds of people to go self-investigate what was going on in this pizza shop, to see with their own eyes… One showed up with a gun.”
In a four-part series at the Data and Society research institute titled “The Oxygen of Amplification,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication, culture, and digital technologies at Syracuse University, said that “the takeaway for establishment journalists is stark, and starkly distressing: just by showing up for work and doing their jobs as assigned, journalists covering the far-right fringe… played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen, but rocket fuel to an already-smoldering fire.”
As with most forms of human malevolence, there is nothing new under the sun. In an article in The Guardian, boyd and her colleague Joan Donovan discuss how hate groups throughout history not only sought the amplification of the media, but considered it one of their most essential recruitment tactics. In the 1969 autobiography of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, he noted that “only by forcing the Jews to spread our message with their facilities could we have any hope of success in counteracting their left-wing, racemixing propaganda!”
The KKK — and many more groups of its ilk — have regularly used inflammatory rhetoric and behavior to bait journalists into giving them free press that would attract more people to their cause, both now and in history. In 1921, a newspaper exposé that was deeply critical of the KKK was picked up by newspapers around the country. And despite the KKK saying it would sue for libel, the coverage reportedly led to as many as hundreds of thousands of new members for the hate group. In response, many in the black, Jewish, and Catholic press promoted the idea of “dignified silence” or “selective silence,” or denying the hate group the oxygen that it so desperately wanted.
These sorts of editorial decisions become even more complicated when acts of public violence are involved. Indeed, claiming more attention through violence is often the specific goal, and the KKK escalated its campaign of hate accordingly. But as boyd notes, “Journalists and editors had to make moral choices of which voices to privilege, and they chose those of peace and justice, championing stories of black resilience and shutting out white extremism. This was strategic silence in action, and it saved lives.”
Now, when more people than ever get their news and information from the internet and not just from traditional media, this is a message that is extraordinarily important for journalists, but also influencers and social media executives like Dorsey. But as history demonstrates, the path of free speech absolutism in the context of social media will certainly take us somewhere, but it will not be where he hopes. Attention is oxygen. And particularly when dealing with marginal bad actors and purveyors of hate, giving it space of any form can mean that we often take what we hoped to extinguish and breathe new life into it; we elevate what we hoped to cast down.
Instead, far too many of the biggest social platforms continue to tie themselves — and, by extension, their millions of users — to the railroad tracks of unfettered speech, more fearful of exuding a whiff of censorship than the oncoming train of misinformation and hate that is already barreling down upon us.
The idea that “more speech” is the remedy for falsehood comes from a 1927 Supreme Court case involving the First Amendment — and while “free speech” is often the clarion call of those like Dorsey, private entities like Twitter making decisions based on incredibly basic social norms has almost nothing to do with it.
The First Amendment is a principle that exists to protect the public from the potential oppression of the state, ensuring that we can’t get thrown in prison for saying things the government doesn’t like. It’s an important check on a very powerful institution that limits the damage it can cause.
Twitter does not have the power to throw people into prison; indeed, the greater potential threat Twitter poses to the public is not its ability to lock someone’s account if they use racial slurs, but the harm it has done, and is doing, by feeding its oxygen to the ugliest and most destructive elements of society — ones that better and more civilized communities and platforms would quickly banish for the good not only of its most vulnerable members, but for discourse at large.
This week, Dorsey — like so many others who have chosen to double down when faced with harsh realities rather than reassess — made his position plain: rather than making a distinction between supporting a diverse range of political ideas and enabling the hideous malfeasance of those like Alex Jones, he said that withdrawing its massive amplification service from Jones would mean “we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction. That’s not us.”
Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth wrote in a memo titled “The Ugly” that leaked earlier this year: “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”
The ugly truth is that this isn’t the truth at all. It is something uglier and far more uncomfortable: everyone involved in amplifying the hatred, bad faith, and bullying that has infected social platforms and now the nation is partially responsible for the ugliness of the political and social landscape before us. That it is their — and our — responsibility to take responsibility and the sort of action that the most powerful purveyors of information once used in the past: to give no quarter to the bad-faith voices that seek to stoke hatred, undermine equality, degrade democracy, and upend the very notion of truth.
While many, including Dorsey, seem to fear that striking Jones down from media platforms will only make him more powerful, media manipulation research lead Joan Donovan at the research institute Data & Society tells The Verge that throughout her work, she has observed the opposite: once you remove the biggest megaphones from bad actors, their power diminishes and their ability to attract larger audiences and sow disinformation decreases. Instead of promoting no-holds-barred speech, he might instead embrace the principle suggested by Boyd and Donovan in their case for quarantining extremist ideas: “all Americans have the right to speak their minds, but not every person deserves to have their opinions amplified, particularly when their goals are to sow violence, hatred and chaos.”
In a series of guidelines titled The Twitter Rules: A Living Document, the company’s VP of trust and safety, Del Harvey, describes how the company is focused on understanding “the role we play in society and our wider responsibility to foster and better serve a healthy public conversation” and that its “our policies and enforcement options evolve continuously to address emerging behaviors online.”
More than anything else, I hope that they do. And the jest and the sickness of those like Jones will not be discovered until it is too late, and we are forced to live in the world they leave behind.