From Plato on, paternalists have argued that individuals would be better off if they were shielded from lies, disinformation, and “bad speech.” In contrast, liberals think individuals are capable of discerning their own ideals and interests, free from the oversight of “those who know.” For liberals, such restrictions “elevate society and the state to a despotic command and…reduce the individual to the arbitrary control of others.”
In the United States this liberal case for speech enshrined constitutional constraints on government paternalism. Those constraints “do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But that power to punish incitement matters less than you might think. People may be shouting “fire,” but they rarely are in a “crowded theatre” and hence, subject to censorship. We thus risk speech causing “harm to others.”
What about expression that might harm its listeners or readers? The religion clauses of the First Amendment mean government may not protect its citizens’ immortal souls. In theory, obscene speech may be censored; in fact, disagreements about the definition of obscenity have hampered restrictions. Thanks to the First Amendment, the government cannot act like a parent overseeing what its children say and hear. Adults have the right and responsibility to speak, to hear, and to discern the truth in a world often filled with uncertain claims and outright lies.
Private forums for speech, like social media, are different. They are not obligated to follow the First Amendment. But why? Here again the individual matters. Individuals want things, others provide them, and consensual agreements bring them together. Those who create businesses seek to maximize their profits; platforms’ tolerance of some sorts of speech would reduce revenue. An individual or individuals own the platform; they may exclude speech that reduces their profits. More generally no one has the right to use other people’s property without their consent. A platform owner, unlike a government official, may suppress speech they find offensive. Indeed, federal law empowers them to do so.
Some see a conflict between property rights and civil liberties. Platform owners may suppress the speech of their political opponents as a danger to the commonweal. The suppressed say in response that speech should be free in “the new public square” of social media. Property rights must give way to “freedom of speech” with government officials the unlikely champion of the latter.
Yet social media users may want speech paternalism. They might wish to be protected from extreme expression or be told “the truth” in a confusing era when everything seems up for grabs. And social media are multi‐sided platforms. Advertisers, who pay social media to target their ads, want users to come and stay on the platforms. They care little why users come and stay. In any case, they do not want ads for their brands near extreme speech. Content moderation by social media may be less a political imposition and more a business necessity. Even if social media managers have no desire to parent their users, they must meet a market test for their shareholders. Perhaps providing a measure of protection is a part of the social media product. And that measure of protection need not be small. People want what they want, and businesses per se are satisfiers, not judges, of those wants.
We should not exaggerate the novelty of such protections. Legacy media big and small often confirmed rather than challenged the views of their readers providing thereby an untroubled path to familiar conclusions. The older gatekeeping was a kind of content moderation offering safety (among other things) to those seeking it. And the power of gatekeepers raised the costs of reaching an audience; many ideas remained at the margin of public debate. Now we have fewer gates and lower costs to reach readers or listeners. More people are called upon to tolerate more “dangerous” or “false” speech than in the past. The supply of tolerance may be falling short of demand, at least from a liberal perspective. That’s an explanation not a justification for the current situation. Those who wish to live in a free society should live up to liberal ideals.
Most political philosophies are often betrayed by realities. Liberals put the individual at the center of society. They also demand much of each individual, not least the strength to sort good ideas from bad and live (and vote) by their results. Individuals may not meet those demands. At times, they may wish for security and protection and for a world of clear enemies and few doubts. Many see content moderators as politically correct censors or abettors of social injustice. But the liberal among them should be seen in another light, as ordinary people struggling with a dilemma created by our failure to live up to liberal ideals. We may hope moderators will resolve this dilemma in favor of liberal ideals. But it is our failure to live up to individualism, rather than the power of social media moderators, that should concern us all.