Digital Free Speech Was Good Until They Said it Wasn’t

Americans agreed on the First Amendment. Now, free speech is a debate focusing on online legality while ignoring its place as our most sacrosanct cultural value.

The internet boom of the 90s was a chance for the little guy to exercise his right to free expression like never before. For the first time in human history, an average person’s voice could compete with the narratives of the most powerful people and corporations on the planet. 

Nobody seemed to have a problem with unfettered online discourse in those early online days. 

Discussions on message boards worked as they did in real life. There were always trolls, reactionary content featuring violent videos, and racists sharing garbage views– But they got ignored, and it was understood that some people just suck. The world kept turning, after all. 

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

Oscar Wilde

Fast forward to 2015 and suddenly, cancel culture went mainstream and certain opinions were no longer acceptable to be expressed publicly. It’s no coincidence this coincided with Donald Trump’s rise as a popular political figure. 

Retribution for wrong think, renamed “accountability”, was made a moral imperative when something was deemed offensive according to political narratives. If someone could ostracize the offenders from social life or their jobs with an organized and outraged collective, all the better. 

Conservative speakers began to be shouted down and shut down on college campuses. Online personalities received harsh backlash for infractions as small as racy jokes. Much of these cancel culture campaigns were highlighted in the media as a good thing, or not demonized at all.

The vitriolic mob action was all technically legal.

This was PC’s (political correctness) mutation into Social Justice, an ideology with influential college kids as its warriors. It had been growing for a while in the universities and finally went mainstream with social media in the mid-2010s. Interacting with differing ideas was no longer cool for many people, particularly on the farther political Left. The rise of this intolerant culture nudged our shared pride in free speech tenets out of the limelight and into archaic status.

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

George Orwell

Several years later, during the 2020 election cycle, social media suspensions became the new norm. It was increasingly obvious most social media censorship and backlash mainly affected Independent and Trump-related messaging. Bans were handed out like candy for those who dared speak about election integrity, Covid origins, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and more. Many of the banned were vindicated later on several issues when the truth later came out in their favor. Despite this, others remained permanently locked out of posting due to being correct before the media conglomerates conceded it so.

Also, it’s not just the outright bans that are the only problem. It goes right down the soft censorship inherent in their algorithm coding that “shadow bans” certain people as well. 

It’s beside the point. Facebook, other platforms, and Twitter, suffered no repercussions when they got things wrong and punished users incorrectly based on their own written standards. Everyone acknowledges they did a lot to shape the latest election by silencing voices. We have had many debates about these platforms being designated public squares and we talk about changes to the laws to reflect that (with Section 230 reform) but nothing gets done about it.

It’s all legal.

Right now, in 2022 only what is politically incorrect on Twitter has changed. Opinions on trans issues are the current hotbed that leads to social media silencing. It’s all very tiring.

Free speech advocates claim online censorship is heresy. We should prevent the silencing of people with politically incorrect views. Supporters of Twitter and Facebook’s intolerant practices repeatedly sing the refrain “It’s a private company, they can do whatever they want”.

The thing is, both sides are correct. But they’re not actually talking about the same thing because what Facebook and Twitter do is lawful, but it’s awful. Those two sides are posing entirely different arguments with not much crossover. Twitter may abide by Social Justice rules instead of American principles if they want but it sucks because it affects the entire world.

The left-leaning masters of the platform will naturally use their incredible power to control the global discourse at their whim. There’s no way around that fact. The problem for them is that it’s short-sighted. What would happen if company ownership changed and flipped the script?

Enter Elon Musk and his bid to take over Twitter. Whether he will buy it out is up in the air, but it has the corporate media and liberal talking heads scrambling. They all know their collective grip on the de facto communication platform would loosen into something that more closely resembles the First Amendment.

The pro-censorship Left argues that if Mr. Musk calls the Twitter shots, hate speech and white supremacy would be allowed to proliferate. They exaggerate, but they’re not entirely wrong.

Washington DC saw 30,000 KKK members march through it in 1925. Some would say this emboldened them. It was legal.

So yes, the value of free speech allows minority views, good and horrible, to be expressed as well. But we can only beat bad ideas with good ideas. The principles don’t change just because the discourse became digital. I believe that because of free speech and its inherent marketplace of ideas, their racist ideology failed over the years. 

History has shown repeatedly that free speech is a marker for fair and prosperous societies. So when most of the speech that connects us runs through unchecked ideologues, what should be done? The effect of the current censorship on citizens is the same regardless of whether the boot comes down from a government entity or a private company.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know something has got to give. I feel it will happen in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms. The suppressed voices will always get their message across, and the pendulum will swing back the other way. The current Twitter fiasco is just the beginning.

No matter what happens with the blue bird app, and the rest of social media, we should all agree that free speech is more than a mere legal concept. It’s the underpinning of our American culture. So it makes sense that we fight this war along those lines. 

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

George Washington

We ought to remind our population, especially young students, why the exchange of ideas matters. Every single historical receipt runs in favor of the First Amendment. The moral record of free speech is undeniable. People should be disgusted by its suppression again like we used to be. 

The culture won’t change back by silencing the voices of others. When we champion free speech loudly and proudly, we can heal and revert to the land of the free.

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