Towards the end of #republic, we study speech and its regulation by government. What are reasonable limits that a government might pose on speech? How might these change in the digital era?
We might also distinguish between speech that bears on democratic self-government and speech that does not; certainly an especially severe burden should be placed on any government efforts to regulate political speech.
This has helped me to reconcile the ideas of free-ish speech on political platforms with the idea that the platforms needing to place further restrictions on political speech.
I’m generally in favor of more speech, not less, like Ben Thompson is known to write about. That’s not from a belief that I think speech is harmless, but rather a distrust in authorities that would set these policies.
But I am better understanding why political speech should be different, and I think this book’s perspective is valuable. Granted—the approach that social networks are taking is to place tighter restrictions on political speech (e.g., with ads). I don’t think that’s in conflict with free speech, though, because the restrictions are on speech that is potentially harmful to the democratic process.
Sunstein lays out three principles on government regulation of speech.
- A government is least trustworthy when it is influencing speech that might harm its own interests. Special scrutiny should be given to the government when they’re trying to regulate political speech.
- Emphasizing “democratic deliberation” protects speech in the case when it’s most likely to be harmful.
- A stress on democratic deliberation is likely to protect democratic free expression.
He differentiates between three forms of expression: content neutral (no using megaphones in the streets), content based but viewpoint neutral (no promoting violence), and viewpoint based (nothing anti-government).
This is a reasonable partitioning of speech when you live in a world with two (or more) political parties that are more or less equals. But what do you do when one of the parties is trying to undermine the system of democracy in which it exists?
This is the problem that Facebook, and other platforms, are struggling with. They are trying to create policies that are written in a viewpoint neutral way, but it’s the unfortunate reality that one set of viewpoints is the one producing the majority of the objectionable content.
What do you do when you can’t name the problem you’re trying to solve?
What do you do when one set of viewpoints has been radicalized into producing more and more extreme content, and only the other is still grounded in reason?
What do you do when one of them is denying facts, about climate change or vaccines or the coronavirus, facts about which informed people do not disagree?
These are challenging questions. Drawing false comparisons between two inherently unequal sides sets back otherwise reasonable discourse.