The widespread acceptance of a false and relatively unquestioned idea can do enormous harm to a society. For example, the belief that “bloodletting” helps to cure people of a wide range of diseases (a belief widely held up to the 19th century), or the belief that chattel slavery is part of the “natural order,” needlessly ruined the lives of many people.
Often, the only effective way to separate true from false beliefs is to expose them to rational and scientific scrutiny, in a tug-of-war of arguments and evidence. Consequently, social progress depends on the full and unfettered discussion of the guiding values of social life, and their implications for public policy, law, and individual choice.
A vibrant public sphere enables citizens and policymakers to be presented with both sides of a question, and thus reach a more balanced and informed conclusion about the right course of action. False and misleading ideas can be put to the test and corrected if all sides get a fair hearing.
Of course, some level of censorship of certain types of harmful information is probably unavoidable. For example, a government may reasonably censor information that obviously constitutes incitement to violence, or that presents patently violent or abusive conduct as worthy of imitation.
However, censors are fallible and corruptible human beings, so the power to stifle public debate should be granted very sparingly indeed. If public debate is tightly controlled by a handful of elite actors, many influential ideas embraced in an unreflective or knee-jerk manner may get a “free pass” and be artificially shielded from criticism, giving them an undeserved veneer of cogency.
Before the age of internet and social media, the primary sources of censorship were territorial governments, which used the law to control the flow of information through media outlets like newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. Censorship of this traditional sort was used in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and communist Russia, to ensure that citizens were only exposed to government-approved propaganda.
But a large part of the “information highway” is now created and maintained by private corporations like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It is not especially surprising, then, that some of the most significant and far-reaching censorship is now imposed by private companies. It is now commonplace to hear of someone’s speech on Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube being censored for purveying “misinformation,” or violating “community standards.” What are we to make of this sort of private censorship?
The dominant social media corporations are in a privileged position because they are the primary gatekeepers of a massive information highway. Naturally, they have the right to regulate their own platforms. For example, it is perfectly reasonable for them to suppress patently criminal uses of their platforms, such as videos or tweets advocating violent or criminal behaviour. However, this does not give social media giants a free pass to regulate the flow of information and ideas on their platforms however they wish.
When social media companies aggressively suppress information and arguments that are not obviously nefarious or criminal in nature, they are sabotaging what is, de facto, a large part of the infrastructure of the public sphere. And this is effectively an attack on democracy. For civil life in a free society depends on the ability of citizens to evaluate and debate a diverse array of information and ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual respect.
Social media companies like Youtube/Google, Facebook, and Twitter are now routinely censoring reasonable debate about issues that are vigorously contested by ordinary citizens and eminent experts alike, such as the efficacy of masking, the accuracy of PCR testing, the safety profile of vaccines, and effective prophylactic and remedial treatments for Covid-19. The premise behind such interventions is that there is a unique repository of moral and scientific truth that can be verified by “Fact-Checkers” or corroborated by “official” sources, to justify suppression of “misinformation.”
However, scientific & rational inquiry simply does not work like that. There is no repository of unquestionable truths over which official sources may keep watch. Rather, there is an evolving body of evidence and conclusions, some contested and some widely accepted. Consensus emerges gradually, not because a handful of Gatekeepers keep everyone on the straight & narrow, but because hypotheses are rigorously tested, counter-arguments are presented, theories are contested, and evidence is questioned and corroborated.
In a heavily censored public sphere, this process is short-circuited.
If a handful of censors diligently suppress every claim they think constitutes “misinformation,” then they are presuming to stand like gods above the ebb and flow of scientific and philosophical debate. The inevitable result of their hubristic interventions is that valuable perspectives and evidence are arbitrarily hidden from view, and the untrammeled search for truth is replaced with shallow, intellectually lazy conventionalism.
We should not forget that the hypothesis that Covid-19 had man-made origins was widely censored by Big Tech giants for a long time, until “official” sources finally recognised the plausibility of that claim. Nor should we forget that worries about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccine were systematically suppressed until public authorities finally started to acknowledge an unusually high number of adverse events associated with the Covid vaccines, such as myocarditis.
If the social media market was structured in such a way that a variety of different companies each controlled large segments of the public sphere, and it was relatively easy for customers to switch to a competing service if they disliked a company’s censorship policies, then we could let the free market take care of the problem of private censorship.
But right now, Google, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter exert such extensive control over our communication infrastructure at a national and global level that their censorship policies may do untold damage for decades to come unless they are either forcibly broken down into smaller companies, or legally compelled to desist from engaging in heavy-handed, ideologically partisan forms of censorship.