Opinion: Why social media bans restore free speech

In this photo illustration, the Twitter account of former President Donald Trump is displayed on a mobile phone.

In this photo illustration, the Twitter account of former President Donald Trump is displayed on a mobile phone.

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Recent fallout over the Capitol insurrection has radiated outward, from finding the bad actors to wondering about the role of social media. Is social media’s consumer orientation — sign up, post what you are thinking — an unintended medium for sedition?

If a post is deemed dangerous to the public good, the thinking goes, then it should be removed. Obscenities and hateful rants present an easy decision to remove the post, perhaps ban the poster. But if a social media becomes the platform for wily political opportunists to create mayhem? Is the claim that an election has been stolen by widespread miscounting and hence fraud an act of free speech, allowing the reader to decide for herself? Or is free speech too crude a term, unresponsive to gradations of intention that range from informed and rational to manipulative and inflammatory?

As the history of political incitement shows, a leader who is good at identifying an “enemy of the people” can use speeches — or tweets — to excite a group of fanatic followers who will lash out, full of high-minded reasons, at the supposed enemies. As immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger recently explained, the hate-filled attack on Jewish businesses known as Kristallnacht was incited by Hitler’s desire to create fanatic loyalists. The armed bands needed an evil enemy — the Jewish community that had long contributed to the German economy. Once bonded in fanatic loyalty to their lying leader, these patriots would ensure a lifetime dictatorship for their god-like leader.

Anti-Semitic hate speeches, repeated over and over, did not have the more potent 24/7 medium of Twitter or Facebook. But repetition of big lies, pre-Twitter, was a key to Hitler’s success in agitating, recruiting and mobilizing the gangs who would raise him to dictator status. When Twitter announced its bans of President Trump, they were reacting very late in the day to inflammatory speech that had gone on week after week, day after day. Under the protective umbrella of “free speech,” they allowed a U.S president to deploy the Big Lie strategy. Just tweet and retweet that the election was stolen. Avoid counterevidence such as certification of election results by Republican election officials or dismissal of election fraud lawsuits by Republican-appointed judges. Offer hearsay evidence. Dead people voted, but say no names and show no illicit voting ballot. Say that votes in pro-Trump districts were thrown into dumpsters, but name no time, no place, no persons.

Trump was able to play the evil enemy card: You cannot let your country be stolen by those underhanded Democrats. And then the call to violence, carefully forwarded in language that hide within the fog of hints and muted directives: fight, take back, be strong, be bold. Members of the audience who wore helmets, carried canisters of Bear Repellent, and stashed hammers beneath their jackets understood the meaning of “fight.” Given the conditioning into violence that preceded the Jan. 6 speech, members who did not dress for combat also understood “fight” and “take back” as a call to violence. Enemies of the American way must be removed. The window-smashing began soon after.

Twitter’s ban on incendiary speech and big lies was a necessary short-term fix, suited to a moment of crisis. It meant that one producer of digital brain-washing had been stopped. It meant that mental operations crucial to rational thought and civil interaction could wiggle from under the massive weight of Big Lies. But what is a long-term solution to digitally mediated rabble-rousing by U.S. officials?

With a ban on the inflammatory speaker, humans have a chance at rehabilitation: they may be asked to weigh evidence rather than instantly ratify an incendiary statement; they may be able to deliberate about the truth of a statement, empowering rather than surrendering their intelligence. Though debate calls for rules and social etiquette, humans may be able to listen to contrary views of the same issue. The silencing of an incendiary voice is a step toward free speech imbued with evidence, reasoning and openness to refutation. It prevents one statement from being chanted, over and over, becoming an enchantment.

My training in classical rhetorical theory taught me to be wary of any public speech, especially the speech of people with big egos and a desire for power. Plato’s Republic, a classic indictment of rhetoric that plays on emotions and avoids facts and evidence, described speech as capable of magically reshaping the things we know from observation and experience: “An object appears straight when out of the water,” but the same object is “crooked when under the water.” Words can take something solid and knowable from evidence and turn it into something wavy and suspect: An election with security safeguards turns into an evil, undulating thing, an election of counted and discarded votes. Socrates, the champion of a Republic that screens out smooth talkers in the forum, offered an compelling reason to ban such people: Their lies, inflammatory statements, name-calling and refusal to offer proofs based on evidence amounts to a kind of “conjuring” that has “an effect upon us like magic.”

Social media was not created to deal with abusive rhetoric, let alone defeat the dark magic that leads to polarization, militancy, fanaticism. But the recent spate of bans carries the seed of social media’s reconstruction as a place for free speech. The classical idea of dialogue — as in Socratic dialogue where people ask questions rather than shout at each other — could become the criterion for rehabilitating social media platforms. Specifically, elected officials — a tiny percentage of the populace having huge visibility and stature — will not be allowed to tweet or post anything unless that post is accompanied by evidence that refutes or at least casts doubt on their claim. This contrary evidence would be given teeth, in the form of equivalent weight (word length) as the claim. Thirty characters of claim? Thirty characters of counter-evidence. In this new republic of social media, citizens have a better chance of escaping the dark magic of manipulative speech. Fans of Twitter and similar social media sites would weigh evidence, deliberate and reach a conclusion that tested a claim by the presence or absence of proof. Free speech that issues from these built-in safeguards would have the civic dignity of rationally mediated speech.

Daniel Bender, of Trumbull, teaches literature and rhetoric at Pace University. He holds a Ph.D in rhetorical theory from the University of California, Berkeley. His book, A New History of Tudor England: Essays for Students, Teachers, and Workers, was published in 2020 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.