Censorship: How Echo Chambers Are Made
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
You asked me the other day about how I could decry social media censorship done by private companies. How could I say that on one hand a baker could refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding but then say Facebook can’t ban people that violate their rules. These are legitimate questions.
Legal? Ethical? Wise?
First, I think you misunderstood. I am not claiming a private business lacks the LEGAL RIGHT to stop doing business with someone. Facebook has every legal right to ban and censor people (including banning me for 30 days last month) and the baker legally has the right to refuse service to whom they want. However, just because you legally can do something does not mean you should do that thing. The question of if the baker should have the legal right to refuse service to a gay person is different from if they should actually do it. One is a question of legality, the other is a question about ethics. People often conflate the two.
Given that, let’s explore the interesting question: SHOULD Twitter/Facebook censor content on their platforms?
I think we can all agree that banning child porn or other illegalities on a platform is acceptable. So let’s set those matters aside as no sane person has a problem with platforms banning things that are already illegal. But what about intentionally censoring points of view they don’t like or having different standards for conservatives vs leftists?
We live in a dangerous age where polarization is getting to extreme levels. Right now we need to do everything we can to reduce that or else we may rip the country in two or end up in another civil war. What is driving this polarization? Many things. Still, near the top of that list are information silos. These are media realms that only give one sides perspective on a given issue. They feed into people’s biases and people locked into these media ecosystems end up living in a completely distorted reality. It’s like how people in North Korea believe that in the US people live terrible lives and North Koreans are really the happy prosperous ones. Someone who only watches MSNBC vs someone who only ever reads Brietbart will not even be in the same universe when it comes to basic facts about the world. Even worse, they end up with false and hostile narratives designed to push an agenda even if they have to tell lies and half truths to get there.
The Path To Polarization And Violence
Social media did not always have us so polarized. However, over the past decade people have begun to increasingly block those in their online circles with different opinions. Online groups and forums started doing the same thing and began purifying their ranks. The result? The information silos grew more and more pronounced with time.
The same has been happening in news media over the past 30 years. As competition in news media has grown, companies have had to focus on more targeted markets by providing more targeted information products. In other words, the market pushed media groups toward putting out information packaged in a way that gets target audiences to watch. People love to watch things that make them feel justified in their biases, so the news media has begun to offer that content. Over time the business model became about selling narratives rather than selling the truth.
These same trends can also be observed in academia in the 20th century. During this time, academia had a left wing slant, but never like today. For instance, in New England (where nearly all our Ivy league schools are) the faculty are 26 to 1 liberal to conservative. And nearly all of those lone conservatives are in places like engineering departments not social sciences. These information silos are hotbeds for radicalization. How can you even have peer review in that kind of environment? It’s like having a paper by MSNBC peer reviewed by The Young Turks! This is how you end up with these strange gender studies departments giving actual awards to fake (and hilarious) papers about sexism in dogs. Thank you James Lindsey! (You really should check out his book “Cynical theories”).
So, why did large groups of people tear down statues and burn businesses all summer? They had been bathing in these echo chambers for years hearing false narratives about police, US history, and the causes of inequalities. Why did people besiege the capitol? Simply because they believed information about election fraud that was not true, flying around in these information silos where only one side of the story gets out.
What is the common thread? False narratives fomented in echo chambers. So what does censorship do? It makes this all much worse. People don’t stop sharing information, they just share it in an echo chamber.
Free Speech As a CULTURAL VALUE.
So what should you do? Who can you trust? No one. It's not about trusting someone, it's about listening to all sides (which is the exact opposite of what happens in an echo chamber). It's about learning to engage with people who think differently than you do. It's about learning how to engage in discussion and debate around ideas without devolving into personal attacks. It's about learning to steel man both sides of an issue before rendering judgement. It's about learning to deeply understand an argument before you disagree with it. People in echo chambers end up being droning avatars of a particular ideology. Be better than that. Embrace ideological diversity (the diversity that actually matters) and test your notions and ideas against the other ideas in the marketplace.
This is why free speech matters. The reason it’s a legal right is because the founders recognized it as a cultural value. Free speech is valuable because, to summarize what Sam Harris says, we really only have a couple tools to sort out our differences, conversation and force. We are witnessing what happens when conversation breaks down. We are witnessing what happens when people stop talking across aisles and connecting with ideological diverse groups of people and instead insulate themselves within tribes where the only thing that is true is what supports their narrative and agenda. We are witnessing what happens when tribalism fosters complete rejection of anyone not deemed an ally of the tribe regardless of if they are speaking the truth.
What we need is a space where people from all sides can engage honestly and in good faith with differing points of view. Social media giants do a major disservice to this cause and pour fuel on this fire that is already ripping us apart when they manipulate our ability to use them as open and fair forums where ideas (both good and bad) can play themselves out in a free and fair public square.
Just because sites like Facebook and Twitter have the legal right to make the problems worse, does not mean they should.
Best wishes my friend,