Once a ‘free speech maximalist,’ Jason Pontin thought free speech should only be curtailed when directly related to physical harm. He now rejects the liberal tradition of free speech. He supports a version of ‘discursive intolerance.’ Just as the only political parties democracies cannot tolerate are anti-democratic ones, the only unacceptable speech on social media are expressions meant to undermine the functions of the platforms themselves, like hate speech intended to drive out other users.
- Should social media be intolerant of users trying to drive out other users?
- Should the government focus on hate speech education instead of regulation?
- Was there less hate towards fellow Americans before social media?
Social media are doomsday machines. They distract, divide, and madden; we can no longer hear each other, speak coherently, or even think. As a result, our social, civic, and political ligands are dissolving.
Everywhere, people consult their screens to affirm what they already think and repeat what like-minded people have already said. They submit to surveillance and welcome algorithmic manipulation. Believing absurdities, they commit injustices. A few lose their minds altogether. We’ve done a number on ourselves. Everyone knows it, even technology’s salesmen. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, ruefully told a privacy conference last October that platforms and algorithms, which many hoped would enlarge the best in humanity, had liberated the worst.
Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He was formerly the editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review; before that he was the editor of Red Herring. Now he is a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, a firm in Boston that funds companies that solve problems in health, food, and sustainability. Pontin does not write about Flagship’s portfolio companies nor about their competitors.
I know it now too. I see the lies and self-love, cruelty and credulousness, and can trace their causes. But for a long time, I was a free-speech maximalist—someone who believed humanity needed as much free speech it could bear. I believed in a marketplace of ideas, where bad ideas would be defeated and good ideas refined. In this, I was conventionally liberal. My inspiration was John Stuart Mill and his “philosophic text-book of a single truth,” On Liberty (1859). That truth, now called simply “Mill’s harm principle,” states: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community is to prevent harm to others.”
I once invoked the ghost of Mill in an essay, “Free Speech in the Era of its Technological Amplification,” to argue that the harm principle could not only define the legal limits to speech in nations that protect free expression (briefly: American law protects advocacy of illegal action up to the point where a serious crime is “imminent” and “likely”), but also guide the terms of service of internet companies, which can censor any speech they choose. Harm, I confidently declared, should be the sole standard that internet companies use to decide what to ban, where “harm” meant physical and some commercial injuries, but excluded personal, religious, or ideological offense. I was wrong.