The New Thought Police

The New Thought Police

 

By Tom Robotham 

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook a satirical commentary titled “Make America Great Again.” Within an hour, it had elicited a typical combination of “likes” from people who share my views, and harsh rebukes from my right-wing acquaintances. The next day, as I went about my business, I didn’t give it a thought. That evening, however, I received a notice: “This post has been removed,” it stated, “because it violates our community standards.” To make sure I got the message, Facebook prohibited me from posting anything else for the next 24 hours. 

It was an odd experience. I sort of felt like I was 14 again, and my parents had grounded me for missing curfew. Since I frequently use Facebook messenger to communicate with business contacts as well as friends, it was also an inconvenience. But above all, I found it chilling. 

I suppose one could argue that Facebook—as a private company—has the right to manage content as it sees fit. But that argument doesn’t really hold up. In recent years, the social media site has become our global town square. With this in mind, it seems to me that while censoring certain individuals may not violate the letter of the First Amendment, the policy violates its spirit. 

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that Facebook executives are in a bit of a bind these days. As most people know by now, there is a mountain of evidence that the site is littered with posts by “phony groups,” as The New York Times put it, that are “part of a sweeping Russian disinformation campaign…funded with millions of dollars and carried out by 80 people operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia.”

The problem is broader than that, of course. Long before Trump actively encouraged Russian interference in the election (“I hope they find the emails…”), it was revealed that many American citizens were intentionally posting fake news stories either in the service of some political ideology or as part of some money-making scheme. 

It’s easy to understand how these posts spread like wildfire. For millions of people, scrolling through Facebook is a Pavlovian experience. Certain buzzwords are the “bells,” as it were, eliciting a conditioned response from users: “Share.” 

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve fallen into the trap myself, a handful of times—but I’ve grown determined to be more vigilant. Facebook remains, to some extent, a free and open forum—and as such, we must think of ourselves as stewards of the site. That means opening links, scrutinizing them and, if the source looks fishy in any way, fact-checking them through Snops or some comparable service. 

If we regard ourselves as stewards we also have the responsibility to exercise restraint. I don’t mean self-censorship of ideas. That would be a dangerous road to go down. I mean paying attention to the fine line between expressing political passion and launching personal attacks on other users. Again, I know from personal experience that this is sometimes difficult in the heat of the moment. But on occasions when I’ve lost my temper in Facebook debates, I’ve always felt ashamed the next day. In general, I try to stick to substantive arguments rather than ad hominem assaults. 

The thing about my recent experience with Facebook censorship was that my post wasn’t aimed at any private individual. It simply mocked the mindset that Trump has exploited: a vision of America that is rooted in ignorance, fear, and hatred. 

Facebook was wrong to take it down. But let me be clear about something. I would make the same argument on behalf of someone with whom I vehemently disagreed—and I find it troubling that many of my friends on the left don’t seem to have the same commitment to freedom of expression. Recently, example, I was disheartened when someone for whom I have great respect, announced that she had taken down some posters at a local university because she was offended by their message: “Socialism Sucks.” 

This attitude, of course, has played out on campuses across the country, as student groups have removed or defaced posters, shouted down right-wing speakers and engaged in other efforts to muzzle people. 

If we have any hope of maintaining our freedom of expression, we most combat objectionable ideas with one weapon and one alone: counter-expression, whether with different posters, published opinion pieces or speeches of our own. In short, let people say what they will, and then respond if you’re so inclined. 

The need for such thinking has never been more urgent. We have a president, after all, who has called the press “the enemy of the people”—a phrase lifted right out of the playbook of dictators. It is a brilliantly evil tactic: If you can erode people’s trust in the press, you can get them to believe any lie. 

I fervently hope that the mid-term elections will deplete his power, and that he will go down in defeat in 2020. But what I’ve been saying here represents a problem far greater than the would-be dictator who currently occupies the White House. 

What alarms me is that far too many people across the political spectrum seem all-too willing to tolerate or even endorse censorship of statements that they find offensive. In fact, in spite of what I said above about the need for restraint and civility, I don’t even think most personal insults should be censored from social media. I would draw the line at outright libel. And certainly people who issue threats of violence to one individual or another should be stopped in their tracks. But publicly calling someone a “fucking idiot,” or what have you, isn’t libel, nor is it a threat. Why not either respond with a witty comeback or simply ignore it? There’s a reason that children used to be taught to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones…” Nowadays, it seems, far too many people want the authorities to step in when they are the targets of such insults. 

Meanwhile, I’ve observed a widespread attitude that may be even more insidious. After being released from Facebook jail, as it were, I posted a public notice about what had happened. A number of people responded, “LOL,” or something to that effect. 

I wasn’t laughing because Facebook’s attempts to enforce “community standards” seem to me to be part of a bigger trend. Shrugging off this trend as amusing but no big deal may be more dangerous than actively endorsing it. 

It’s worth bearing in mind something the late, great Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas once said: “As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Oppression can come in many forms. We tend to think of it as a threat from above—from Big Brother, as Orwell warned. But as Neil Postman pointed out in a book I’ve mentioned before in this space—Amusing Ourselves to Death—the Big-Brother scenario is not the only threat.  In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman points out, people simply grew apathetic. All that mattered was the pursuit of mindless pleasures.

Postman argued that Huxley’s vision was more pertinent to our times. But the book was written in 1985. I suspect that if he were still alive, he would recognize that both threats are now looming: The one from Trump, who fawns over dictators and fantasizes about being “president for life,” and the other from citizens who either crave protection from “offensive” speech or have grown indifferent to politics altogether because engagement is too uncomfortable or exhausting. 

To my mind, though, one thing is clear: The hour is getting late—and we have two choices: We can either accept the enveloping darkness and turn increasingly to trivial pursuits, or we can shine the light of reason as brightly as possible in an effort to save what’s left of our democratic spirit.