Over the course of the past decade, numerous regulatory authorities, both public and private, have increasingly positioned themselves as guardians of the integrity of our public sphere, standing watch over the content of information, and flagging or suppressing information deemed to be harmful, misleading, or offensive.

The zeal with which these gatekeepers defend their power over the public sphere became evident when billionaire Elon Musk promised to undo Twitter’s policy of censoring anything that contradicted leftist ideology or questioned the safety of Covid vaccines. There was an uproar, a wringing of hands, and lamentations, as “experts worried” that Twitter would collapse into a den of “far right” extremists and misinformers.

Sound and fury

Threats by the EU Commission to fine Twitter or even completely ban the app in Europe, if it did not enforce EU regulations on hate speech and misinformation, show that the hand-wringing over Twitter’s potential embrace of free speech is much more than empty rhetoric: the European Commission has declared its intention to force Twitter to revert to its old censorship policies if it does not play ball. According to Euronews,

The European Commission has warned Elon Musk that Twitter must do much more to protect users from hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content, or risk a fine and even a ban under strict new EU content moderation rules.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for digital policy, told the billionaire Tesla CEO that the social media platform will have to significantly increase efforts to comply with the new rules, known as the Digital Services Act, set to take effect next year.

Censorship has recently occurred principally on two fronts: Covid “misinformation” and “hate speech.” Some forms of censorship are applied by agencies of the State, such as courts and police officers; others by private companies, such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google-YouTube. The net effect is the same in both cases: an increasingly controlled and filtered public sphere, and a shrinking of liberty of discussion around a range of topics deemed too sensitive or “dangerous” to be discussed openly and freely.

Censorship, whether public or private, has proliferated in recent years:

  • First, there was Canada’s bizarre claim that people had an enforceable human right to be referred to by their preferred pronouns
  • Next, UK police were investigating citizens for using language the police deemed “offensive”
  • Then, we saw Big Tech giants, in particular Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, censoring perspectives that dissented from their version of scientific and moral orthodoxy on issues such as transgender rights, vaccine safety, effective Covid treatment protocols, and the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Now, advocates of censorship have argued that it is all to the good that vile, hateful and discriminatory opinions, as well as every conceivable form of medical and scientific “misinformation,” are shut out of our public sphere. After all, this makes the public sphere a “safe” place for citizens to exchange information and opinions. On this view, we need to purge the public sphere of voices that are toxic, hateful, harmful, and “misleading” on issues like electoral politics, public health policies, and minority rights.

Thin ice

While there is a strong case to be made for censorship of certain forms of manifestly dangerous speech, such as exhortations to suicide or direct incitement to violence, the hand of the censor must be firmly tied behind his back, so that he cannot easily decide for everyone else what is true or false, just or unjust, “accurate” or “misleading”, innocent or offensive.

For once you hand broad, discretionary powers to someone to decide which sorts of speech are offensive, erroneous, misleading, or hate-inducing, they will start to purge the public sphere of views they happen to find ideologically, philosophically, or theologically disagreeable. And there is certainly no reason to assume that their judgement calls on what counts as true or false, innocent or toxic speech will be correct.

The fundamental mistake behind the argument for aggressive censorship policies is the notion that there is a set of Truths out there on contested political and scientific questions that are crystal clear or can be validated by the “right experts”; and that anyone who contradicts these a priori Truths must be either malicious or ignorant. If this were true, the point of public discussion would just be to clarify and unpack what the “experts” agree are the Truths of science and morality.

But there is no such set of pristine Truths that can be validated by human beings independently of a free and open discussion, especially on difficult and complex matters such as infection control, justice, climate change, and economic policy. Rather, the truth must be discovered gradually, through the vibrant back-and-forth of dialogue, debate, refutation, and counter-refutation. In short, public deliberation is fundamentally a discovery process. The truth is not known in advance, but uncovered gradually, as an array of evidence is examined and put to the test, and as rival views clash and hold each other accountable.

If we empower a censor to quash opinions that are deemed by powerful actors to be offensive, false, or misleading, we are effectively short-circuiting that discovery process. When we put our faith in a censor to keep us on the straight and narrow, we are assuming that the censor can stand above the stream of conflicting arguments, and from a position of epistemic and/or moral superiority, pick out the winning positions in advance.

We are assuming that some people are so smart, or wise, or virtuous, that they do not actually need to get their hands dirty and participate in a messy argument with their adversaries, or get their views challenged in public. We are assuming that some people are more expert and well-informed than anyone else, including other recognised experts, and may therefore decide, for everyone else, which opinions are true and which are false, which are intrinsically offensive and which are “civil,” and which are “facts” and which are “fake news.”

Needless to say, this is an extraordinarly naive and childish illusion, that no realistic grasp of human nature and cognition could possibly support. But it is a naive and childish illusion that has been enthusiastically embraced and propagated by Big Tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn in their rules of content moderation, and it is a view that is increasingly finding its way into the political discourse and legislative programmes of Western countries that were once champions of freedom of expression.

It is imperative that the advocates of heavy-handed censorship do not win the day, because if they do, then the public sphere will become a hall of mirrors, in which the lazy, self-serving mantras of a few powerful actors bounce, virtually unchallenged, from one platform to another, while dissenting voices are consigned to the shadows and dismissed as the rantings of crazy people.

In a heavily censored public sphere, scientifically weak and morally vacuous views of the world will gain public legitimacy, not because they have earned people’s trust in an open and honest exchange of arguments, but because they have been imposed by the arbitrary will of a few powerful actors.

This article has been republished from David Thunder’s Substack, The Freedom Blog.

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society.