“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
— Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980
All this free speech, free press, freedom to peaceably assemble stuff that Americans have been on about for more than 200 years — and a lot of Brits, French and Greeks well before that — is just not going to work unless people who listen, read and observe take some responsibility.
Those Facebook algorithms aren’t going to do all your thinking for you.
Every advancement in communications technology, from clay tablets to tablet computers, has brought with it the possibility of the increased democratization of knowledge. The chance for practically every person to know just about anything that any person knows, and so have better information on which to make better decisions. Both deliberate censorship and the pooling of useful knowledge held within the guild have become ever more difficult.
But the right to speak does not carry with it the right to be believed. Or to have your message carried on platforms or through pipelines that belong to someone else.
Just because the government cannot arrest or fine you for being wrong or unpopular does not mean the state has to clear the way for any person who is — in an expression I learned from a once-young reporter friend of mine who, I just discovered, has since become the provost of a very important university — a lying sack of excrement.
Speaking of Mike Lee.
The senior U.S. senator from the state of Utah is back on one of his favorite hobby horses, threatening federal action against social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter for having a tendency to block, ban and deplatform people expressing conservative political views much more often than those with more liberal messages.
For one thing, as big as those outfits are, they do not hold a monopoly on the flow of information and they are not — yet — the government. If you think Mark Zuckerberg is too restrictive or too unbalanced, you can take your eyes elsewhere.
(This is not to say that internet operations shouldn’t be investigated, fined, even broken up, for being dishonest about the personal data they collect or for making it impossible for those who don’t buy advertising on their platforms to reach customers. They should be.)
More important is the very real possibility that the blocked messages and banned persons Lee considers “conservative” are not ideas or speakers that would be recognized as such by Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.
According to a recent study from the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, most of the tweets, posts and accounts that have drawn the ire of social platform hall monitors are not calling for lower corporate taxes, promoting a bigger defense budget or talking up the benefits of school choice.
The things and people that actually get blocked tend to be racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-some religion, to advocate violence, promote downright harmful lies about vaccines or try to convince readers that white Republicans vote by mail by Nov. 3 while Black Democrats vote by text message on Nov. 4.
If those are the things that Lee means by “conservative,” well, William F. Buckley would at least have had the decency to be shocked and appalled.
“The claim of anti-conservative animus on the part of social media companies is itself a form of disinformation,” the NYU report says, “a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”
The Washington Post, picking up a report from a Silicon Valley web-watching outfit called Zignal Labs, tells us that, once former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter and other social media platforms, false posts about how the election had been “stolen” dropped by 77 percent.
If only it were that easy.
In recent days, the serial fabulists of Fox News, by carrying the puny excuses of people who were supposed to be ensuring that the power grid in Texas would work when it was needed most, have put forward a flood of lies about how the power outages in the Lone Star State were the fault of the Green New Deal and all those frozen windmills.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently proposed a public campaign to get cable systems across the country to drop Fox News. (Fox News is totally separate from Utah’s Fox 13, a thoroughly reputable operation.) Kristof rightly complains that fees from those cable operators, not advertising, is how Faux News makes most of its money. Which means that, even if you know better than to watch that channel, you support it every time you pay your cable bill.
The flow of information sometimes needs to cleanse itself of backed-up garbage. Through the marketplace of ideas — and fees — not through government action.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is restricting his social media consumption to the accounts of NASA spacecraft, like @NASAPersevere.