Tag Archives: censorship

Private “censorship”

Here’s a thought experiment about what some people call censorship.

Let’s imagine we all live in a community called Mayberry. This is a pre-internet time, and imagine too that very few of us have a TV or a radio. The main media outlet in our town is the Mayberry Gazette.

Some community leaders worry our town is getting a bit overweight. They want to pass a law that enacts a 10 cent tax on the sale of any ice cream cone in Mayberry. They plan to use the revenue to fund free community tai chi classes in the Mayberry Community Center each morning.

I draft an op-ed to argue against the proposed tax. I make economic arguments about how this will impact the ice-cream marketplace (“it’ll encourage bigger cones!”). I warn of the adverse effects on our beloved local ice-cream parlor. I also make moral appeals. I say that people should be free to choose their treats and decide which if any exercise they will pursue. And so on.

I submit that to the Mayberry Gazette, which refuses to publish it. I spot the editor coming out of Floyd’s Barbershop. I ask why the paper declined my op-ed. The editor tells me that the proposed tax is a great idea and so the paper has no room for my views.

I say to the editor, “Shouldn’t we have open discussion?”

“Of course,” the editor replies. “We should have open discussion of sensible views. But, Andrew, your views threaten to undermine public health and morals.”

I then appeal to fairness. “Your refusal to publish my views is not right. You have the only newspaper and the only printing press in our town! You’re making it nearly impossible to get my views to the community. You’re censoring me!”

The editor then says: “If you don’t like that, go get your own newspaper.”

There are several issues here. Bracket whether the proposed law has merit. If you think it does, substitute another one that does not. Consider instead three issues about what the newspaper may, should, or should not do. First, there is a conceptual issue about whether to call the newspaper’s conduct “censorship.” Second, there is the issue of whether the newspaper has a right to do (or not do) what they do. Third there is the question about whether the newspaper is doing the right thing.

I am uneasy calling it censorship when the Mayberry Gazette refuses to publish my op-ed. My unease revolves around using the same term for what private people do as compared to what people who wield political power do.

Suppose I say you may remain in my home only if you make no mention of a certain politician’s name. That does not seem to be censorship. I offer you terms of our association, which you are free to decline by not entering my home. If you come in my home and speak that person’s name anyway, I am within my rights to demand that you leave. If you complain of censorship, I might reply, “whatever you want to call it, if you don’t like it, go speak your views elsewhere.”

I take the notion of censorship to include some notion of impermissibility. Whether something is permissible turns significantly on whether one has a right to do it. As a private party, the newspaper can do what it wants with its resources, just as you may decide what speech is permissible in your home.

Suppose instead the Mayberry Police tells the Gazette that if it publishes my op-ed, they will shut down the newspaper. That would surely be censorship. What seems to make it censorship is the legal prohibition, supported by the force of the state, against the dissemination of certain ideas. (This formulation is incomplete, since some legal prohibitions on speech and writing seem justifiable but don’t easily seem to be censorship.)

I do not want to press too hard on the conceptual point. It might come down to a battle of intuitions. Many people think of censorship more capaciously than I do. (See Andrew Jason Cohen’s recent post.) Let us bracket the conceptual point and move forward. Consider what private parties do when they withhold their own property as vehicles for disseminating certain ideas. Call that “schmensorship.” When if ever may someone schmensor?

The US Supreme Court restricts some private parties’ rights to schmensor. In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980), the Court said the state of California may require owners of shopping malls to allow people to petition on their premises. The Court said a state may require this of malls provided it does not clash with other constitutional protections. Suppose there is a compelling argument that shows it is not a restriction (or not a worrisome restriction) on private parties’ rights of free speech, free association, and property, when the state forces them to open their property to views they reject. Maybe we can argue shopping malls are (well, perhaps they were) the modern “town square” to which everyone must have access. I doubt the public’s access to a shopping center implies the owner’s diminished private authority over what happens in and through the private resource.

Back to Mayberry. I’m the local llama farmer (a seldom-mentioned business in the episodes). I am too busy with my llamas to have the time, the resources, or the know-how to “go get my own newspaper.” Nothing beats the Gazette for publicly airing views. When the paper schmensors me, the economic barriers to getting my views out are formidable. I can still print up my ideas and spread my brilliant prose. Doing so might be hard. It might be expensive. It might be time-consuming. But I could do that without jeopardizing my freedom.

In contrast, when the Mayberry Police censors me by threatening to shut down newspapers or imprison people who speak my ideas, the barriers they put up against my views seem importantly different. I may not then “go get my own newspaper” to publish my views. The barriers on disseminating ideas under censorship seem different in kind, and not just degree, compared to those of schmensorship. The prohibitions track different moral stakes. Schmensors leave me free to speak my mind if I can find the resources. Censors deny me the freedom to speak my mind no matter what resources I have.

Here’s a wrinkle to my little thought experiment. For fans of the show: who was the editor of the Mayberry Gazette?

That was none other than Sheriff Andy Taylor, who was also the local justice of the peace. That… complicates things. Even then, his schmensorship regime is not necessarily a censorship one. Will Andy lock me up for handing out my essay to willing passersby on property where I have permission to stand? If not, then he’s merely a schmensor. When I’m merely schmensored, I still have a shot at speaking my mind.

(Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for feedback on an earlier draft, and also for neither schmensoring nor censoring me.)

Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/humboldt-the-sphere-and-duties-of-government-1792-1854

My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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