I think it’s beyond question now that our tech giants had a significant effect on the 2020 election. Their throttling, shadow-banning, and outright censorship of selective stories and outlets is obvious now, in much the way that the “conspiracy theory” that the government is spying on us all is now just accepted fact.
It is easy for conservatives to look at this selective targeting as a malicious threat. And without question, there is selective targeting in their shades of censorship that people who believe in the first amendment should take issue with, even if they agree with the politics of Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
But there’s a deeper concern here than malice.
To get an insight into how these people think, everyone should take an hour or so and watch the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. The short gist is this: many of the people designing social media platforms and algorithms are masters in the art of persuasion. Or at least, they’re good at making AIs which write algorithms designed to maximize engagement. And they are very, very good at doing this.
But consider the implications of this state of affairs, regardless of which ideological direction these tools might be used for. The tacit belief of all propaganda — social media interference being only the latest, subtlest and most sophisticated of these — is a kind of behaviorism, wherein human beings are best understood as stimulus response machines, programmable (or de-programmable) like any other.
This is not an ideological position they hold. It’s an empirical one. They’ve done the tests, and it turns out that on the whole, repetition and emotional manipulation are more persuasive to human beings than rational argument.
Marketers have known this for decades: when they put a sexy woman in a car ad, they aren’t appealing to your economic self interest.
But if this is true — and it certainly appears to be — where is there room for freedom of speech?
The arguments for the freedom of speech as we understand it today (post-Abrams) comes from John Milton and John Stuart Mill, and essentially holds that freedom of expression is important because of the value of the information, and this right is most critical not to the speaker, but to everyone else who might wish to hear the speakers’ point of view.
Aside from nearly implying a duty to speak one’s mind, this Enlightenment argument for freedom of expression depends upon an assumption that “sunlight is the best disinfectant;” that in the open battlefield of ideas, the stronger argument will eventually win. But what social media’s persuasion-scientists have come to believe — after years of A/B testing, research, and observation — is that this is just not true. Far more important than the strength of the argument is its repetition, its emotional impact, and what is perceived to be socially permissible (what is in the “Overton window”). The philosophically and scientifically superior argument can be absolutely and easily trounced by an inferior position in the court of public opinion; it just takes a good marketing team.
Something has to give here.
If public opinion is so easily manipulable, with these tools of mass-persuasion, then perhaps democracy itself will have to eventually go away. What good is the “will of the people” in the governing of a Republic if that will can be bent with a few algorithmic tweaks and good media connections? Or perhaps we are simply too big; much of these problems of scaled-persuasion might be mitigated if more federal power was delegated to the states again: large-scale propaganda campaigns would have to be more specific and would get less reward for their efforts. It would no doubt still be an issue, but would probably be less of an issue.
But perhaps free speech comes under question too; something which could in theory exist independent of democracy. If freedom of speech includes the freedom to use these tools of persuasion on an industrial scale to manipulate broad swathes of voters — and if these tools can be repeatedly and powerfully shown to overpower superior arguments — then aren’t the original Enlightenment arguments for free speech utterly obliterated?
The Aristotelian counter-argument may be that rhetoric (propaganda) can be used to fight propaganda, and in a battle between two propaganda campaigns, the side more closely-aligned with truth will be stronger. But when the “debate” devolves into two propaganda fountains trying to out-spew each other, everyone is essentially being pushed out of their rational prefrontal cortex, into deeper, older, more intuitive, and more manipulable parts of the brain. Truth is thrown out the door completely, because it isn’t even part of the argument anymore.
To bring back our car-ad example: in two ads running pick-up trucks featuring hot women, slow-mo action shots, and cool-looking drivers, the relative miles-per-gallon, user reviews, and APR aren’t even in the mental picture. Whoever has the hotter woman, the more professional camera-work, the more seductive narrator voice, is likely to do better. You may think about the rational factors, but what social media persuaders have found is that in the long run, stronger associations — built on emotion and repetition — will trump reason in our decision making, far more often than not. In these cases, “reason” is often just an ex post facto justification for decisions we have essentially already made, even though we may feel like we are using reason to make our decision.
(This may or may not be true with car purchases, but the principle will hold more true the more emotionally deep-rooted the subject is).
I think we in the West have stumbled upon a valuable institution in the First Amendment, but perhaps the value does not lie in its original stated justification. In the age of digital media and runaway scaled-production of science-backed propaganda techniques, the case can be made that freedom of speech does more harm to our collective knowledge and reason than it does good. Yet even granting this premise, it may still be worth defending the freedom of speech for a more intrinsic reason related to individual freedom itself… although when we get down to it, “freedom of inquiry” may be the better term for what it is we wish to defend than “freedom of speech.”
As politicians, pundits, and corporate lobbyists debate the utility of section 230, and just how much responsibility these tech giants should have relating to censorship and liability for user content, I think it will be important to remain focused on the deeper problem than the intentions (malicious or benign) of the tech corporations themselves. The problem is with the scale of communication. Propaganda has always existed, but with access to the whole world at anyone’s fingertips, the incentive and power of propaganda has jumped at a logarithmic rate.