Freedom of speech in online communities

I have debated freedom of speech countless times, and it is my contention that today (in 2021) the meaning of that concept is lost.

The idea of freedom of speech didn’t exist as such until censorship started to be an issue, and that was after the invention of the printing press. It was after people starting to argue in favor of censorship that other people started to argue against censorship. Freedom of speech is an argument against censorship.

Today that useful meaning is pretty much lost. Now people wrongly believe that freedom of speech is a right, and only a right, and worse: they equate freedom of speech with the First Amendment, even though freedom of speech existed before such law, and exists in countries other than USA. I wrote about this fallacy in my other blog in the article: The fatal freedom of speech fallacy.

The first problem when considering freedom of speech a right is that it shuts down discussion about what it ought to be. This is the naturalistic fallacy (confusing what is to what ought to be). If we believed that whatever laws regarding cannabis are what we ought to have, then we can’t discuss any changes to the laws, because the answer to everything would be “that’s illegal”. The question is not if X is illegal currently, the question is should it? When James Damore was fired by Google for criticizing Google’s ideological echo chamber, a lot of people argued that Google was correct in firing him, because it was legal, but that completely misses the point: the fact that something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right (should be illegal).

Today people are not discussing what freedom of speech ought to be.

Mill’s argument

In the past people did debate what freedom of speech ought to be, not in terms of rights, but in terms of arguments. The strongest argument comes from John Stuart Mill which he presented in his seminal work On Liberty.

Mill’s argument consists on three parts:

  1. The censored idea may be right
  2. The censored idea may not be completely wrong
  3. If the censored idea is wrong, it strengthens the right idea

It’s obvious that if an idea is right, society will benefit from hearing it, but if an idea is wrong, Mill argues that it still benefits society.

Truth is antifragile. Like the inmune system it benefits from failed attacks. Just like a bubble boy which is shielded from the environment becomes weak, so do ideas. Even if an idea is right, shielding it from attacks makes the idea weak, because people forget why the idea was right in the first place.

I often put the example of the idea of flat-Earth. Obviously Earth is round, and flat-Earthers are wrong, but is that a justification for censoring them? Mill argues that it’s not. I’ve seen debates with flat-Earthers, and what I find interesting are the arguments trying to defend the round Earth, but even more interesting are the people that fail to demonstrate that the Earth is round. Ask ten people that you know how would they demonstrate that the Earth is round. Most would have less knowledge about the subject than a flat-Earther.

The worst reason to believe something is dogma. If you believe Earth is round because science says so, then you have a weak justification for your belief.

My notion of the round Earth only became stronger after flat-Earth debates.

Censorship hurts society, even if the idea being censored is wrong.

The true victim

A common argument against freedom of speech is that you don’t have the right to make others listen to your wrong ideas, but this commits all the fallacies I mentioned above, including confusing the argument of freedom of speech with the right, and ignores Mill’s argument.

When an idea is being censored, the person espousing this idea is not the true victim. When the idea was that Earth was circling the Sun (and not the other way around as it was believed), Galileo Galilei was not the victim: he already knew the truth: the victim was society. Even when the idea is wrong, like in the case of flat-Earth, the true victim is society, because by discussing wrong ideas everyone can realize by themselves precisely why they are wrong.

XKCD claims the right to free speech means the government can't arrest you for what you say.
XKCD doesn’t know what freedom of speech is

The famous comic author Randall Munroe–creator of XKCD–doesn’t get it either. Freedom of speech is an argument against censorship, not a right. The First Amendment came after freedom of speech was already argued, or in other words: after it was already argued that censorship hurts society. The important point is not that the First Amendment exists, the important point is why.

This doesn’t change if the censorship is overt, or the idea is merely ignored by applying social opprobrium. The end result for society is the same.

Censorship hides truth and weakens ideas. A society that holds wrong and weak ideas is the victim.

Different levels

Another wrong notion is that freedom of speech only applies in public spaces (because that’s where the First Amendment mostly applies), but if you follow Mill’s argument, when Google fired James Damore, the true victim was Google.

The victims of censorship are at all levels: society, organization, group, family, couple.

Even at the level of a couple, what would happen to a couple that just doesn’t speak about a certain topic, like say abortion?

What happens if the company you work for bans the topic of open spaces? Who do you think suffers? The people that want to criticize open spaces, or the whole company?

The First Amendment may apply only at a certain level, but freedom of speech, that is: the argument against censorship, is valid at every level.

Online communities

Organizations that attempt to defend freedom of speech struggle because while they want to avoid censorship, some people simply don’t have anything productive to say (e.g. trolls), and trying to achieve a balance is difficult, especially if they don’t have a clear understanding of what freedom of speech even is.

But my contention is that most of the struggle comes from the misunderstandings about freedom of speech.

If there’s a traditional debate between two people, there’s an audience of one hundred people, and one person in the audience starts to shout facts about the flat-Earth, would removing that person from the venue be a violation of freedom of speech? No. It’s just not part of the format. In this particular format an audience member can ask a question at the end in the Q&A part of the debate. It’s not the idea that is being censored, it’s the manner in which the idea was expressed that is the problem.

The equivalent of society in this case is not hurt by a disruptive person being removed.

Online communities decide in what format they wish to have discussions in, and if a person not following the format is removed, that doesn’t hide novel ideas nor weakens existing ideas. In order words: the argument against censorship doesn’t apply.

But in addition the community can decide which topics are off-topic. It makes no sense to talk about flat-Earth in a community about socialism.

But when a person is following the format, and talking about something that should be on-topic, but such discussion is hindered either by overt censorship (e.g. ban), or social opprobrium (e.g. downvotes), then it is the community that suffers.

Ironically when online communities censor the topic of vaccine skepticism, the only thing being achieved is that the idea becomes weak, that is: the people that believe in vaccines do so for the wrong reasons (even if correct), so they become easy targets for anti-vaxxers. In other words: censorship creates the exact opposite of what it attempts to solve.

Online communities should fight ideas with ideas, not censorship.

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