The Broken Soapbox
Social media entered our world with a promising offer: you can communicate here – with virtually everyone on Earth. For years, a wide range of views were tolerated, and every popular voice enriched the creators of the platforms by drawing millions of eyes and ears. These platforms fast eclipsed other means of communication specifically because they offered such an open and effective means of reaching out to others.
But now social media have a near monopoly on public discourse, and the age of censorship has arrived. Ideas and messages that once were tolerable are now forbidden. Users have spent a decade or more building their audience with a consistent message – and thus filling the platform-owners' pockets – and now find themselves banned when their message hasn't changed. In no other arena of commerce would owners be considered justified in arbitrarily changing the rules to exclude certain customers, particularly if the reasons were amorphous, largely unexplained, and applied to a certain type of customer and not to others.
Something sinister is afoot. Understanding and dealing with it responsibly is essential to preserving the free exchange of ideas – a bulwark of our civic culture and a foundation of American exceptionalism.
The argument is made that these platforms are private firms with a right to determine their own policies. But that raises the real questions, which are these:
1. Have social media in fact become the public soapbox? The answer here is undeniably "yes," and certain facts about this reality are undeniable. First, in America, the soapbox has a uniquely revered position; it is supposed to be a level platform on which any can stand. Our right to speak freely has some limitations, but those limits are spelled out by centuries of experience and jurisprudence. The idea that anyone outside law enforcement can stand next to the soapbox with a cudgel is alien to the American experience. Second, is it remotely possible that private property rights can apply to the public soapbox? The platform-owners did an amazing job of building their businesses into the modern soapbox, but can that fact remove the right of people to use it in ways that have always been considered legal?
2. Is anyone exposed to the billions of little soapboxes forced to listen to those standing upon them? No, social media are essentially a large conference call – participation is based upon invitation or interest. If a crank is participating, you can hang up on him without disconnecting from the discussion. This is the most powerful and useful censorship imaginable, and the power always conforms to the will of the listener. Imagine Verizon or AT&T listening in on every conference call and breaking in to tell some speakers, "You can't say that, even though it is not illegal to do so" and telling everyone else, "You can't listen to that person, even if you want to do so." For months, CNN has been explicitly calling for Infowars and Alex Jones to be removed from social media. Imagine the outcry if Verizon or ATT made its censorship decisions on the heels of pressure from their customers' competitors.
If social media censorship were primarily against liberal voices, it would be surprising, given that the vast majority of these companies are run and staffed by leftists. Predictably, the targets of censorship are on the right. Widely banned Infowars does promulgate and discuss conspiracy theories, but doing so is not illegal, being wrong is not illegal, and sometimes there is a conspiracy. And we've already seen censorship of the most conventional conservative voices, such as Dennis Prager's "Prager U," which suffered an almost total elimination of Facebook traffic because of the "error" of a single employee. Prager U's vast content is the result of years of effort and countless hours of sweat and toil and good intentions, and Facebook's content policing made it possible for one zealous employee to blind people to that effort with the stroke of a key. The system is broken because zealous individuals and the writers of murky algorithms have been allowed to stand beside the soapbox with a key and a hammer, and it is broken because the injuries all seem to fall on one type of speaker. It would be just as broken if the censorship went against the left.
These companies have installed a soapbox in all of our homes and pockets. Now they are coming to remove the ones used by people with whom they disagree. The suggestions that conservatives develop their own means of communication – ignore the existing soapbox and create a new one – are commendable but irrelevant to the present danger. Such calls ignore the sacred nature of the soapbox. It belongs to everyone, regardless who first supplied the wood to make it. "Who provided the wood and hammered the nails – shouldn't he determine who can use it?" No, because it belongs to us all, regardless of our contribution to its construction. We all have a God-given right to stand on it and speak. It is like the air that allows our voices to have volume at all; there is no noise in a vacuum, and no real right to speak without the soapbox. The right to speak is inseparable from the right to be heard by those who are willing to listen.
Regulation is probably inevitable because the left can't leave well enough alone. Leftists aren't content with control of all of society's consciousness-forming institutions aside from talk radio and the internet – they want to control them all. Pleas to be treated fairly by companies with a liberal or globalist staff will come to naught. Even if ownership of the platforms is threatened by anti-trust regulation, they will still err on the side of liberalism and censorship, because that is their worldview. Many on the left really don't want conservatives to have a voice. To the left, the marketplace of ideas is fine as long as only certain ideas are marketed. Examples are legion.
Regulation must happen, but it should be simple and clear. We already have laws against harassment and calls for violence, and they can be applied to social media without empowering political censorship. All communication platforms open to the general public must mimic the public sphere in every regard, with the platforms treated as the air through which the sound of the human voice travels.