We Can’t Make Free Speech a Popularity Contest

Recently a reader contacted me to say that Facebook was doing something strange with a SayAnythingBlog.com link posted to Facebook. He sent me a screenshot (see it over there on the right) of questions the social media platform was asking him about the content.

“Just letting you know Facebook asked me to do a survey on your blog. I enjoy reading what you say and figured you’d want to know about this,” the reader told me. “They asked about 6 questions asking if I considered it news, how relevant it was, all questions were along those lines,” he added.

This is no doubt part of Facebook’s efforts to combat “fake news” content on their service. A understandable goal since I think most reasonable people are weary of content that is purposefully inaccurate and/or hateful.

Still, as someone who makes a living from expressing controversial points of view and poking very powerful people in the eye, I worry about turning free speech into a sort of popularity contest.

The reason why we have the 1st amendment, which prohibits the government from making judgments about which sorts of speech ought to be allowed, is because the government can’t be trusted to moderate it for us.

Which committee of pure minded, perfectly competent politicians or bureaucrats would you like to have in charge of the sort of content you’re allowed to see?

To be free is to be responsible for making those sort of decisions for yourself.

Services like Facebook and Twitter – while not under any legal obligation, as private entities, to abide by the protections of the 1st amendment – still have a duty to live up to the ideal of free speech.

They haven’t been doing a very good job of it, as numerous headlines of late can attest. Probably because committees of private sector tech workers (and/or the algorithms they design) are no better at making content decisions for the rest of us than the government is.

Which brings me to this questionnaire posted by Facebook under a link to my content. It’s an indication that Facebook is going to try and solve the problem of controversial content through crowdsourcing.

That makes a certain amount of sense. Better the “wisdom of the masses” than small committees of people, right?

But that’s still not how free speech works.

The 1st amendment does not allow the Trump administration, for example, to use their regulatory powers to suppress a media outlet which produced content they didn’t like. But the 1st amendment also wouldn’t let stand a federal law allowing the public at large to vote on which sorts of content is allowed to be published or broadcast by media outlets.

This latter example is akin to what Facebook is doing, and it’s very problematic.

If all speech were popular speech we’d have no need for free speech protections. It’s unpopular speech, that which polarizes and enrages and offends, which needs protection. Allowing the masses of social media voters a vote in which sort of content we all see is a recipe for censorship by the mob.

Over the years I’ve been sharply critical of the leadership at North Dakota State University. This has earned me the ire of many of that school’s alumni, not to mention the fan base of their football team. Should that group of people be able to diminish the reach of my content on services like Facebook simply because they don’t like the arguments I’m making?

Should Democrats be able to effectively hide content they find inconvenient by voting en mass against it? And vice versa for Republicans?

That seems to be where we’re headed, and we ought to pump the brakes.

I’d rather deal with the headaches associated with “fake news” and hateful speech than those stemming from censorship through down votes.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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