'Good speech' isn't winning
The growing threat of lies and radical partisanship
Nearly a century ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that the best remedy for "falsehood and fallacies" was not the "enforced silence" of censorship, but "more speech." That foundational defense of free speech was based on an optimistic assumption that has served us well: In the marketplace of ideas, good thinking and truth will eventually triumph over bad thinking and lies. Can we be so confident of that today? Social media has deeply disrupted public discourse, eroding and bypassing filters and turning every crank into a publisher with the potential for vast reach. On Facebook and Twitter, every day brings a new tsunami of hyperpartisan argument, tribal resentment, propaganda of all flavors, death threats, conspiracy theories, and some charming baby pictures and wonderful writing and thinking. The wonderful stuff — Brandeis' "more speech" — isn't necessarily triumphing over "falsehoods and fallacies." That's why Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg now faces fraught decisions about policing his massive, privately owned platform.
Zuckerberg's reluctance to serve as "an arbiter of truth" is understandable: How does Facebook screen the 4.7 billion posts that its 2.7 billion users share each day? It can't. But its rage-reinforcing algorithms, allied with and fed by the Fox News media ecosystem, have enabled tens of millions of Americans to secede into an alternative reality that facts and evidence do not penetrate. In this bubble, massive voter fraud cost Donald Trump the 2020 election, Jan. 6 was a peaceful assembly of patriots, Rep. Liz Cheney is a traitor, COVID was not dangerous, masks offered no protection, and lifesaving vaccines are part of a sinister plot. These lies have led to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths during the pandemic, and a violent attempt to overturn an election. They now threaten democracy itself. Truth and our better angels may prevail in the long run, but let's be honest: The outcome is uncertain.