Richard V. Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families. He was formerly a Director of Strategy for the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He is the author of John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (2007), and of the much-discussed 2017 book Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It
John Stuart Mill was born 212 years ago today–May 20, 1806. His work is still widely taught, cited and argued over. Mill scores well on what Goethe dubbed “posthumous productivity;” Mill’s arguments for free speech in On Liberty, in particular, have been hugely influential. But do they still hold in the world of Twitter, bots, and fake news? (Spoiler: I think so. That’s why I just helped produce All Minus One, an illustrated edition of Chapter 2 of On Liberty):
Mill argued that free speech was essential for the production of knowledge, both for individuals and for societies. The pursuit of truth requires the collation and combination of ideas and propositions, even those––especially those––that seem to be in opposition to each other.
Why let a “crazy” or “hateful” person speak? Three main reasons, according to Mill. First, the other person’s idea, however controversial it seems today, might turn out to be right. (“The opinion may possibly be true.”) Second, even if our own opinion is largely correct, we hold it more rationally and securely as a result of being challenged. (“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”) Third, and in Mill’s view most likely, opposing views may each contain a portion of the truth, which need to be combined. (“Conflicting doctrines share the truth between them.”)
But that was then, and this is now. There is a strong argument that recent advances in communication technology, and especially the rise of social media, have rendered Mill’s views obsolete. As Zeynep Tufecki argued in Wired magazine:
Many more of the most noble old ideas about free speech simply don’t compute in the age of social media. John Stuart Mill’s notion that a “marketplace of ideas” will elevate the truth is flatly belied by the virality of fake news. And the famous American saying that “the best cure for bad speech is more speech”—a paraphrase of Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis—loses all its meaning when speech is at once mass but also nonpublic. How do you respond to what you cannot see? How can you cure the effects of “bad” speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?
Tufecki draws attention to a vital ingredient of the classical arguments for free speech – engagement – and suggests that it is simply lacking. She is quite right that Mill’s arguments for free speech presuppose that opposing opinions are brought constructively together, in what Mill called a “collision of ideas”. He envisaged a constructive give-and-take between those with different opinions.
But as Tufecki points out, the principal goal of the dominant social media platforms is not to make us engage with each other. It is make us engage with the right kind of advertisement. Our engagement is secured either by confirming our prejudices, in what Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook called “a social-validation feedback loop”, and/or by feeding our hunger for vicarious conflict. As Tufecki points out:
“Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite.”
This critique is hugely important. Far from providing a thoughtful agora of intellectual exchange, ad-driven social media platforms provide us with some version of itoldyouiwasright.com, or a demolitionist display of intellect, along the lines of “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments” (3 million views), “Sam Harris simply destroys Christianity” (2.3m), “Bill Maher Destroyed Again And Again By Reza Aslan” (4.7m), and so on.
Is the answer, then, as Tufecki suggests, to impose stricter regulations on speech? Or force these companies to change their algorithms? Is Mill’s ideal doomed?
I don’t think so, in part because Tufecki, like many others, misstates Mill’s position. He never used the term “marketplace of ideas”, although the phrase is often incorrectly attributed to him, and the market metaphor does not capture his arguments in favor of free speech.
Mill acknowledged that there was nothing certain about the process through which the “truth” would emerge as the winner following an intellectual contest. He knew that bad ideas can hold sway over good ones, often for a very long time. Ideas don’t exist somehow apart from social context.
Most importantly, Mill did not see truth or truth creation this way at all. The marketplace metaphor suggests that Idea A competes with Idea B, and if Idea A is true and Idea B is false, Idea A will become dominant. Mill believed instead that most often, “we share the truth between us”…That doesn’t mean that we are all equally right, but it does imply that few of us are 100% right and our opponents 100% wrong. We all gain from exposure to others, exposure to challenge.
In Millian terms, then, the case for free speech lies as much in our capacity to listen as in our willingness to speak. It also requires us not only to accept but to seek out alternative views, to challenge our own prejudices, and to work hard to try and keep an open mind.
Mill, like Tufecki, worried that new forms of mass media might make this task harder – though in his case the new technology was the mass printing of newspapers. In his essay “Civilisation”, he wrote: “The newspaper carries home the voice of the many to every individual among them; by the newspaper each learns that others are feeling as he feels”.
Of course, a Facebook or Twitter feed can be much more finely tuned to our own preferences and views. We learn even more securely than through a chosen newspaper that others are “feeling as we feel” because that may be most of what shows up in our feeds.
But this is a difference of degree, rather than of kind. And the solutions may turn out to be the same as those proposed by Mill. We need to become more discerning consumers of content, better able to sort fake from real news, more attuned to the financial or other motives of the messenger, and more careful about judging expertise. These skills take time to develop, but they probably will develop. As a society we’ve only been focused on these problems of “fake news” and manipulative bots since roughly 2016. We should not rush to censorship as a solution; we should first examine a broad range of responses, including responses that people develop on their own.
I notice, for instance, that my teenage sons are highly adept at evaluating YouTube videos. They know what clickbait is, even if they still choose sometimes to click on it. They look not only at the video, but who posted it (and therefore likely why), how it was edited down from the longer version, and so on. They know that if they want to hear thoughtful arguments for free markets, a good place to start is Milton Friedman’s “What is America?” lecture (100k views), rather than a contemporary polemicist.
We will all also have to work harder, and more intentionally, so as not to succumb to the temptations of ideological tribalism. We are likely to develop more sophisticated notions of “social media responsibility,” and that concept may impose duties on the social media platforms (such as verifying identities of users) as well as on individual users. Liberals like Mill knew that liberal societies could only flourish if the individuals comprising them did the necessary work of citizenship, which includes the work of self-knowledge, self-improvement and individual growth.
Nobody said liberal democracy was easy. Perhaps it is even harder than we thought. But worth it, surely, still. Happy birthday, John Stuart Mill.
“The other bit of Mill’s argument has to be held in the same thought process as the argument for free speech which is that it’s a demand on us as citizens not to just sit passively and wait for someone to come along and argue with us, but it’s a duty of citizenship and a liberal democracy to seek disagreements, to seek those who disagree with us, to be testing our own ideas against others.” -Richard V. Reeves
It’s just the second chapter (out of 5), because that chapter gives the best arguments ever made for the importance of free speech and viewpoint diversity.
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