The communications system we live in is highly complex, mostly driven by greed and profit, in part semi-public, full of filth I know we’d be better off without, and increasingly openly censored and monitored by defenders of accepted good thinking.
Fascist nutcases are spreading dangerous nonsense, while billionaire monopolists are virtually disappearing critics and protesters. It’s easy to get confused about what ought to be done. It’s difficult to find any recommendation that isn’t confused. Different people want different outrages censored and censored by different entities; what they all have in common is a failure to think through the threats they are creating to the things they don’t want censored.
A 1975 Canadian government commission recommended censoring “libel, obscenity, breach of the Official Secrets Act, matters affecting the defense of Canada, treason, sedition, or promulgating information that leads to incitement of crime or violence.” This is a typical muddle. Half of those things were almost certainly already banned, as suggested by their identification through legal terminology. A few of those things probably should be banned, such as incitement of violence (though not promulgating information that “leads” to incitement of any crime or violence). Of course I would include as incitement of violence a speech by the Prime Minister advocating the shipping of Canadian “Peace Keepers” to Africa, but the Prime Minister (who would have more say than I) would no doubt have just identified me as commenting on a matter affecting the defense of Canada — plus, if he or she were in the mood, I’ve probably just promulgated something that will lead to inciting some crime or other, even if it’s just the crime of more people speaking on matters affecting the “defense” of Canada. (And it shouldn’t matter that I’m not Canadian, since Julian Assange is not from the United States.)
Well, what’s the solution? A simplistic and surprisingly popular one is to blame philosophers. Those idiot postmodernists said there was no such thing as truth, which allowed that great student of philosophy Donald Trump to declare news about him “fake” — which he never could have thought of doing without a bunch of leftist academics inspiring him; and the endless blatant lies about wars and economies and environmental collapse and straight-faced reporting of campaign promises can’t have anything at all to do with the ease people have in distrusting news reporting. So, now we need to swing the pendulum back in the direction of tattooing the Ten Commandments on our foreheads before morality perishes at the hands of the monster relativism. We can’t do that without censoring the numbskulls, regrettably of course.
This line of thinking is dependent on failing to appreciate the point of postmodern criticism. That the greater level of consensus that exists on chemistry or physics as opposed to on what should be banned as “obscenity” is a matter of degree, not of essential or metaphysical substance, is an interesting point for philosophy students, and a correct one, but not a guide to life for politicians or school teachers. That there is no possible basis for declaring some law of physics permanent and incapable of being replaced by a better one is not a reason for treating a law of physics as a matter of opinion or susceptible to alteration via fairy dust. If Isaac Newton not being God, and God also not being God, disturbs you and you’re mad at philosophers for saying it, you should notice what follows from it: the need for everyone to support your right to try to persuade them of their error. And what does not follow from it: the elimination of chemistry or physics because some nitwit claims he can fly or kill a hurricane with his gun. If that idiot has 100,000 followers on social media, your concern is not with philosophy but with stupidity.
The tech-giant censors’ concern is — in part — also with stupidity, but it’s not clear they have the tools to address it. For one thing, they just cannot help themselves. They have other concerns too. They are concerned with their profits. They are concerned with any challenges to power — their power and the power of those who empower them. They are concerned, therefore, with the demands and national bigotry of national governments. They are concerned — whether they know it or not — with creative thinking. Every time they censor an idea they believe crazy, they risk censoring one of those ideas that proves superior to existing ones. Their combination of interests appears to be self-defeating. Rather than persuade people of the benefits of their censorship, they persuade more and more people of the rightness of what was censored and of the arbitrary power-interests of those doing the censoring.
Our problem is not too many voices on the internet. It is too much concentration of wealth and power in too few media outlets that are too narrowly restricted to too few voices, relegating other voices to marginal and ghettoized corners of the internet. Nobody gets to find out they’re mistaken through respectful discourse. Nobody gets to show someone else they’re right. We need to prioritize that sort of exchange, before a flood of misguided good intentions drowns us all.
The “promulgating information that leads to incitement of crime or violence” bit of that proposed law seems to have had a surprisingly good intention, namely benevolent parental concern with all the “action-filled” (violence-filled) children’s entertainment on television, the violence-normalizing enter/info-tainment programming for all ages that studies and commonsense suggest increase violence. But can we ban all that garbage, or do we have to empower people who actually give a damn to produce and select programming, and empower families to turn it all off, and schools to be more engaging than cartoons?
The difficulty of censoring such content should be clear from the fact that discussions of it tend to stray into numerous unrelated topics, including the supposed need to censor wars for the protection of, not children, but weapons dealers. Once you allow a corporation to censor damaging news — poof! — there go all negative reports on its products. Once you tell it to put warning labels over recommendations to drink bleach as medicine, it starts putting warning labels on anything related to climate collapse or originating outside the United States of Goddamn Righteousness. You can imagine whether that ends up helping or hurting the supposed target, stupidity.
Censoring news, and labeling news as “factual,” seems to me a cheap fix that doesn’t fix. It’s a bit like legalizing bribery and gerrymandering and limited ballot access and corporate airwaves domination and then declaring that you’ll institute term limits so that every rotten candidate has to be quickly replaced by an even more rotten one. It’s a lovely sounding solution until you try it. Look at the “fact-checker” sections of corporate media outlets. They’re as wrong and inconsistent as any other sections; they’re just labeled differently.
The solutions that will work are not easy, and I’m no expert on them, but they’re not new or mysterious either. We should democratize and legitimize government. We should use government to break up media monopolies. We should publicly and privately facilitate and support numerous independent media outlets. We should invest in publicly funded but independent media dedicated to allowing a wide range of people to discuss issues without the overarching control of the profit interest or the immediate interests of the government.
We should not be simplistic about banning or allowing censorship, but highly wary of opening up any new types of censorship and imagining they won’t be abused. We should stick to what is already illegal outside of communications (such as violence) and censor communications only when it is actually directly a part of those crimes (such as instigating particular violence). We should be open to some limits on the forces empowered by our choice through our public dollars to shape our communications; I’d be happy to ban militaries from having any role in producing movies and video games (if they’re going to bomb children in the name of “democracy,” well, then, that’s my vote for the use of my dollars).
At the same time, we need — through schools and outside of them — radically better education that includes education in the skills of media consumption, BS-spotting, propaganda deciphering, fact-verification, respect, civility, decency, and honesty. I hardly think it’s entirely the fault of youtube that kids get less of their education from their classrooms — part of the fault lies with the classrooms. But I hardly think the eternal project of learning, and of learning how to learn, can be restricted to classrooms.