Misconceptions of Online Censorship

personal liberty, trump, censorship

If you’ve ever vocalized a concern of censorship on social media, chances are you’ve been told “but they’re private companies, they can do whatever they want.” Responses like this miss the point of concern. Many political terms (equality, for example) have nuance depending on context. Regarding censorship, there’s the kind that violates your rights, and there’s the kind that doesn’t. The former is much more serious, but that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t a problem.

Everyone has a right to say what they want, but they do not have a right to be heard. They also do not have a right to a platform (online or offline) besides what they can provide for themselves. What this means is that it is not a violation of my rights if an organization denies me use of their platform, because they can do what they want with their property. It is only a violation of my rights if I am given a platform (or provide one for myself), and others forcefully try to shut it down. Even if what I’m saying is atrocious, I still have a right to speak.

Those concerned about internet censorship aren’t necessarily claiming that they have a natural right to a platform (though some certainly do). There are major issues worth criticizing that don’t violate anyone’s rights. Echo chambers are just one example. If society divides itself into echo chambers, that does not violate anyone’s rights. People are choosing who to freely associate with. Despite this, it should be clear that echo chambers are not healthy for a society, and criticism of them is warranted.

Free speech is both a natural right and a principle. When a social media company begins banning users for “hate speech”, they are not violating the users’ right to free speech, but they also aren’t upholding the principle of free speech. When the biggest social media platforms ban users for arbitrary “hate speech”, this shuts down the dialogue. Discussion and debate helps a society work out its problems. When people support the principle of free speech, all ideas enter the conversation, and the worst are eliminated naturally. Supporting free speech doesn’t just mean opposing violent intervention. Free speech activists also want to encourage conversation and debate across different groups of people within a society.

Some libertarians are too quick to dismiss online censorship. Discourse is healthy for a society, and it’s a major problem when criticism of any set of ideas is censored (whether by government, private companies, or through social ostracism). When ideological groups block criticism, they weaken. They become certain that their ideas are correct, and they lose understanding of the opponent’s viewpoint. Censorship, both on social media and on a personal level, has greatly contributed to the political divide we see in the western world. When bad ideas are shielded from criticism, they become even worse. It’s quite evident that censorship is only used by those that can’t defeat opposing ideas. Censoring people is a great way to convince them that they’ve stumbled on the truth. What’s the best argument for holocaust denial? A ban on holocaust denial.

As groups isolate themselves into echo chambers and mischaracterize their opponents, they become radicalized. Their opponents are viewed as evil and violence becomes justified. Violence can only lead to retaliation, which leads to further escalation. And since politics is downstream from culture, the acceptance of online censorship can lead to an acceptance of government policy enforcing censorship.

The best way to eliminate bad ideas is to start talking to people with these bad ideas and see if they’re open to changing their mind. Lots of people with bad ideas believe what they do because they haven’t heard the arguments against what they believe. A black musician named Daryl Davis was able to convince over 200 KKK members to abandon their racist ideas. He didn’t harass them, nor did he ostracise them. He just did the research, became well informed on the ideology and history of the Klan, and started having conversations.

Unfortunately, some people aren’t open to being convinced. They’re set on an ideology, and will oppose anyone (perhaps violently) that disagrees with them. In that case, the only tool is social ostracism. Social ostracism is a tactic that can be good or bad for discourse, depending on how it is applied. If people begin ostracizing others for different views, that divides society and leads to the problems mentioned earlier. Ostracism can be beneficial if it is applied to those that engage in bad actions and aren’t open to criticism. For example, social ostracism can be beneficial when used to boycott business owners that discriminate against customers based on a collectivist prejudice (racism, anti-Semitism, etc), assuming they’re not open to being convinced that what they’re doing is wrong.

Simply put, censorship, whether public or private, can have a bad impact. A society that engages in thoughtful debate with even the most controversial ideas is a well-informed and free society. Censorship of any kind should be strongly opposed.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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