Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Donald Trump demonstrated in the 2016 presidential election that a campaign of “alternative facts” and xenophobic invective against the world outside and perceived enemies within, conducted through the latest direct communication technology of peer-driven social media, can be the path to the top of the world’s most powerful nation.
When he sought to use the same methods to subvert the constitutional transfer of power after a failed reelection campaign, he crossed a line that even advocates of absolute free speech could not abide. After four years of tolerating, even amplifying, his nurture of mass delusion and civic division, it was a moment of reckoning for Twitter, Facebook and other platforms that exposed the elephant in the room all along: a business model of virality at any cost that is at odds with the integrity of democratic discourse.
Summarily, Trump was digitally impeached and convicted, not in the halls of the U.S. Congress but from within the cubicles of those featureless business parks around Silicon Valley. Twitter cut him off. Facebook did too. Facebook has now kicked the issue of whether it made the right decision and should do so permanently to its recently established 20-member independent oversight board that includes constitutional experts from around the world as well as an array of other members ranging from a Yemeni Nobel laureate to the former prime minister of Denmark.
In doing so, Facebook has also invited the next elephant into the room: Should the standards and norms of free speech be determined through democratic deliberation or outsourced to the handpicked adjuncts of Big Tech?
As the philosopher Onora O’Neill once pointed out in Noema, “We are still in a period of gestures and platitudes. Cyber romantics still suggest that any restriction of online communication would be wrong; they forget that free speech is only one of the many standards that matter for the ethics of communication.” Other standards matter as well, not least the content, trustworthiness and validity of information.
Having crossed the Rubicon of censoring a sitting American president, establishing such standards are now on the table for social media, just as they once were for earlier forms of communication.
“This is not the first time that new technologies have disrupted established communicative practices and standards,” O’Neill reminds us. “Plato tells us that Socrates was so worried by the written word’s disruption of communication that he relied entirely on the spoken word. … Socrates worried his words would go fatherless into the world, reaching sundry readers with nobody present to explain what was meant or to clear up misunderstandings.”
She continues: “The problem with writing, however, was not that texts can be separated from their authors and cannot explain themselves, but that the practices of attribution, validation, authorization and commentary, on which writing and publishing now depend, had not been developed in ancient Greece. Now that those practices and standards are in place, we often think of the written word as a particularly robust and reliable way of communicating content accurately and responsibly.”
The same dynamic was true for later forms of electronic communication such as radio and TV. And it is true again now. Where social media was once regarded as a way to speak truth to power, the challenge the Trump conundrum poses is how to speak truth to social media.
Nick Clegg, the onetime deputy prime minister of the U.K. and now Facebook’s global public relations flak, acknowledges the problem. “Everybody is making a reasonable point when they say ‘I’m uneasy about this display of private corporate power over the public realm.’ It strikes at the rawest of raw nerves.” Yet, since democracies have by and large not set the norms that govern free speech in the digital age, he says, Facebook “can’t duck making decisions in real time.”
In the wake of Facebook and Twitter’s action, ardent free-speechers have migrated en masse to unbounded platforms such as Telegram, a platform that only reproduces the conundrum by not addressing it. Telegram has been used equally to organize protests against authorities from Belarus to Iran to Hong Kong as well as by groups like the Islamic State or far-right militant organizations like Proud Boys.
Not trusting elected parliaments, legislatures or the courts, some digital libertarians argue that social media users themselves should utilize the distributed power of the medium to decide for themselves what norms to set. But, without the kind of checks and balances that constrain mob rule in constitutional republics, we’ve already seen how that would work in Myanmar with respect to the persecuted Rohingya minority. Such an approach is akin to the kind of unmediated direct democracy of citizen ballot initiatives that, even in a place like liberal California, led to a ban on same-sex marriage before that measure was overthrown by the courts.
If the participatory power of social media as a platform open to all challenges the custodianship of elites and even the legitimacy of representative democracy, and if Big Tech cannot be expected to undermine its own business model, how then can free speech norms ever be established in open societies?
The most sensible approach, which I have written about in other contexts in this space, would be the deliberative democracy of citizens assemblies like the ones conducted in recent years to reach consensus in Ireland on abortion and in France on climate action. This practice would invite a body of citizens, outside the political class and indicative of the broad civil society as a whole, to gather in a non-partisan space to hear verified facts presented by reputable experts and deliberate choices.
In a way similar to the concept of the founders of the American republic, but for the digital age, this chosen body of citizens would serve to enlarge the view of narrowly self-interested constituencies, dispel delusions, dampen the passions of raw public sentiment, help sort out truth claims among the unlike-minded and enable dialogue across tribal boundaries.
Its recommendations must then strongly guide the action of legislatures in setting the norms and standards of free speech across the web of today’s information ecosystem. If representative lawmaking bodies are too captured by partisan agendas, public referenda could take place to affirm or amend the citizen-deliberated recommendations.
As a novel approach to obtaining the consent of the governed, this mediated manner of citizen engagement would be seen as more legitimate by the entire body politic than private sanction, action by partisan-dominated legislatures or decrees from a Ministry of Truth. The first step in arriving at a social consensus that restores trust in the credibility and objectivity of information is assuring the democratic integrity of the process required to get there.