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Big tech is controlling speech in an effort to control us—it must end

It is not speech that needs to be curtailed, but the intelligent algorithms that learn our behaviour, learn what we want to see, and give it to us in exchange for dopamine hits and our allegiance.
Libby Emmons
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

This article was published more than 1 year ago, information might not be up to date.

Saturday night, the New York Post revealed that Twitter employees have a heavy bias against Trump. They hate him. In fact, 90 percent of political donations from Twitter and Facebook employees go directly to Democrat campaigns. But the number one way they are opposing Trump is by controlling speech. They're changing what you see and what you say in order to change the outcome of the election.

Free speech is under threat. We saw the emergence of free speech prohibitions on college campuses, and we've seen big tech companies crack down on speech they and their third party verifiers don't approve of, but now we're seeing the biggest threat of all: Americans who don't believe in it.

Free speech, once the spine of American liberal thought, is now being derided by those who subscribe to the same ideology that once espoused it as the foremost essential idea of freedom and liberty.

Their reasoning is clear, and it is formidable: social media makes the distribution of potentially harmful speech super easy, and hard to combat. Since Donald Trump embarked on his presidential campaign, branding the concept of "fake news," liberals have found cause for concern.

In Trump's wake, minor press outlets that had been considered extremist by mainstream media obtained White House press credentials. Social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, showed high click engagements from Fox News, Tucker Carlson, Dan Bongino, Revolver, and President Trump himself.

Mainstream media decried the emergence of questions that were being raised about issues they thought were well settled, like climate change, anti-racism, and gender ideology. In recent months, topics like coronavirus, wildfires, antifa, voter fraud, riots and protests have been added to that category.

These are problems that Emily Bazelon reveals in her New York Times story "Free Speech Will Save Our Democracy." Bazelon talks about the growing number of scholars of constitutional law and social scientists who are questioning the First Amendment's speech protections. "These scholars argue something that may seem unsettling to Americans: that perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way."

But the framers of the Constitution, and James Madison, the writer of the Bill of Rights, were well aware of partisan press, because that's all they had. Objectivity in the press was not something Madison, or Thomas Jefferson, believed in even remotely.

Bazelon writes that we hold our freedom of speech as sacrosanct, and that given the overwhelming amounts of disinformation, it may be time to rethink that. Her fear is the "mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract."

Twitter recently shut down the account of the New York Post, founded by founding father Alexander Hamilton, because their fact-checkers didn't trust the provenance of the Post's reporting. Is the New York Post's speech that's the problem there or is it Twitter's? If you're undecided, try to think about a newsstand owner ripping out pages of a magazine before selling it.

While Bazelon calls upon Americans to look to Europe for ideas as to how free speech can be limited, saying that in America, "we're drowning in lies," Europe doesn't actually have all these better models of how to deal with free speech. A teacher in France was recently decapitated by an 18-year-old student who was offended by a political cartoon. Reports have emerged that this teacher was warned not to show the divisive image, which in 2015 were the reasons given by terrorists for killing journalists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.

The Economist reports that democratic protections in the US are weaker than they were prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and that human rights and the value of those rights is on the decline. Yet we have some of our most accomplished, highest educated people proclaiming that the right to free speech is just not working for our democracy anymore.

Their concerns, however, are not with the speech itself, but the public's ability to understand and recognize falsehoods. And these concerns are rooted in the questionable delivery method of social media.

The recent documentary The Social Dilemma puts these concerns into focus. Unlike pre-social media consumers, who went out to look for what they wanted to read or see, those who get most of their information via social media don't have to go look, because the algorithms driving content determine what the user is most likely to want based on past usage, and then delivers it. This very quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why should the right to free speech be curbed when it is the delivery of the speech that is the problem? As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his majority opinion in the 2011 Snyder v. Phelps: "On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

It's not our Constitutional rights that are the problem, it's the delivery of speech. All speech is defensible. All speech must be defended. As Noam Chomsky famously wrote "Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you're in favour of freedom of speech, then you're in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you're not in favour of free speech at all."

The public at large knew how the previous forms of media operated, and how to access it. Now we know how to access it but we don't know how it operates. It's not that Americans are too stupid to make educated discernments and judgements, it's that they don't have enough information with which to do it.

People need the tools to understand why they are being delivered the content that pops up on their feeds. The human nature of social media users that is being both tracked and affected by algorithms cannot be a proprietary tool. To plagiarize Heisenberg, it is not possible for an algorithm to track a user's online behaviour without affecting it in a real way.

What we have is a personalized delivery method that confirms our biases. It is not speech that needs to be curtailed, but the intelligent algorithms that learn our behaviour, learn what we want to see, and give it to us in exchange for dopamine hits and our allegiance.

It is not speech that is the problem, it is the way that speech is delivered—silently, in the dark, without anyone really knowing what or how the algorithms that are shaping our media landscape, our lives, and our brains, are working.

Speaking to podcast "1A" in October 2019, the New Yorker's Andrew Marantz said that "the architecture of social media is built on emotional engagement." He notes that Twitter and Facebook also have free speech protections—and they do.

What tech companies are doing with their speech, notably, drafting and perfecting algorithms that commodify, organize, and herd the most people, like some kind of deranged Yorkie, are what go beyond permissible speech, because the algorithms speak in whispers.

We don't know how the algorithms are doing what they are doing, we only see their effects, and because of the complexity of those machine learning algorithms, it cannot be reverse engineered. Big tech companies should not be controlling speech on their platforms, they should instead reveal how they are controlling us. Our rights cannot and should not be curtailed simply because Big Tech companies want to hold their proprietary secrets.

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