Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

A democracy must protect pluralism at all costs

Simon Cowan

10 April 2021 | Canberra Times

Defences from defamation law are important to allow social media to operate at all. One likely option is to introduce protections similar to those in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States – which basically provides blanket defamation immunity for internet platforms that host third-party content.

However, such reform is more complex than it appears – particularly when considering the contested and difficult question of social media’s role in society.

It gets simplified to the question of whether social media companies are platforms or publishers. Yet social media companies have become key vehicles (if not willing participants) in the push to cast aside the crucial democratic principle of pluralism in favour of social justice.

A recent survey from the CIS found that more than two-thirds of people believe social media companies have a moral obligation to be politically neutral in moderating content. This view was far more common on the right of politics than the left (though a majority on the left agreed as well).

Yet only just over one in four respondents felt that these moderation policies were clear. And increasing numbers of people on the right believe social media companies are not politically neutral.

Discussion of these issues in the US has morphed into a broader dispute over social media; both between Republicans and Democrats and within the parties. This suggests a need to first address the assumptions that underpin these defamation reforms.

Indeed, this is a far larger discussion than defamation – it is about the roles and responsibilities of social media companies and users, which includes not just defamatory content but copyright infringement, bullying and threats, violent images and even political censorship.

Both major American parties have prominent figures calling for far broader regulation of social media, including using section 230 as leverage for change, particularly in relation to the moderation of content.

For some, the central problem is the denial of free speech. For others, a major concern is the failure of social media platforms to ban or censor hateful or dangerous speech fast enough. And for others again, it’s about the use of social media to force (or prevent) social change.

Then there is consideration of equally important principles, including the need to avoid government overreach and allowing private companies to make their own decisions about which content is “acceptable” or “unacceptable”.

And, like everything in politics – or on social media, for that matter – some of the claims being made are just misinformation, or a smokescreen to push a different agenda. And some are flat-out wrong.

Until relatively recently, concern over these issues was more prominent on the left of politics than the right, particularly in light of the supposed role social media played in the election of Donald Trump. This is no longer the case.

Social media doesn’t make people say things they don’t believe, it just encourages them to say things in public they’d normally say privately.

Although there is undoubtedly some irony in just how rapidly the left got on board with corporate coercion on social issues when it was in support of their causes, it’s not like those on the right – once championing private enterprise but now pro-government – are any less hypocritical.

In part, this seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the true nature of the problem: this is not a question of infringement of rights, but of exercise of responsibilities.

Inherent in liberal societies is the idea of pluralism: the peaceful co-existence of different views, convictions and lifestyles. Pluralism isn’t an individual right like free speech; it’s an obligation on all of us to tolerate, within limits, things we dislike or even vehemently disagree with.

This obligation is mostly keenly felt on those with social or cultural dominance – i.e. those who could actually prevent the expression of contrary views. For example, progressives on social media.

With the exception of a small number of free-speech absolutists, most people would accept that as a society we have an obligation to address speech that is genuinely beyond the pale. But from this, three questions emerge: who should “address” speech, how should it be done, and where do we draw the line on what is unacceptable?

As progressive viewpoints have become more prominent – in politics, business and the media – progressives have increasingly used their clout to draw these lines in a way that violates pluralist principles. They have begun to redefine words like “racism”, “violence” and “harm” to exclude alternative viewpoints.

In the US, businesses have been boycotted or dragged before the courts for their personal or religious views. State legislatures (like Georgia) have been singled out for passing relatively routine electoral laws.

In Australia, Israel Folau has been effectively banished from playing football for his religious views on sin and hell.

Social media is just a microcosm of human interaction, made more acute by anonymity and the perception that we are speaking to a small audience, not a general one. Social media doesn’t make people say things they don’t believe, it just encourages them to say things in public they’d normally say privately.

As we begin to come to terms with how much social media has changed how we interact with each other, we must have some tolerance for different views – as well as for those who are mistaken, misinformed or clumsy communicators.

As we have again seen in the US, future social cohesion depends on this pluralist tolerance.

The point is not that people have a legal right to publish “offensive” (read: conservative) views on Twitter – it’s that social media companies have a social obligation to be pluralist platforms. They have the right to draw the lines, but we should expect them to draw them objectively and fairly.

Alternatively, if social media companies want to be players in the game, instead of just owners of the field, it will be difficult to justify special rules protecting them against the other side.

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