The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Big Tech’s attempt to stifle free speech could be futile — or worse

The Twitter logo outside company headquarters in San Francisco on Monday.
The Twitter logo outside company headquarters in San Francisco on Monday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
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Nearly a week later, the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, inspired by the president himself, still infuriates, disgusts and frightens. As a direct attack on a session of Congress and the electoral college vote count, it was doubly repugnant. And we still don’t know the full story behind it, or what repercussions it might yet have.

Like other deadly strikes at our institutions in the past, this one has prompted many to demand that those who might incite, organize or approve of such violence be denied a platform from which to spread their message, in the interest of public safety.

Twitter has banished President Trump; Amazon and Apple have denied Internet services to Parler, the right-leaning Twitter alternative on which many ultra-right and white-supremacist groups spout their verbal poison.

This impulse is not only understandable but also, insofar as it demonstrates revulsion at the attack, healthy. It may have been inevitable, too: Emergencies always force societies to consider tradeoffs between liberty and security.

The only problem — and it’s a big one — is that the tech companies’ attempt to purge the public square of hate speech and incitement to violence could be futile, if not counterproductive.

There is a distinction between private-sector barrier-building and government censorship. What the tech companies are doing may be, in that sense, perfectly legal and not violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

The relevant political point is that this distinction is unlikely to legitimize “Big Tech” in the eyes of those who run afoul of its new strictures, or who fear that they might do so. Given that Trump got 74 million votes, and that rejection of perceived “political correctness” was one of the main sources of his popularity, this group is likely to be very large indeed.

Private companies or not, Facebook, Twitter and the rest face exactly the same problems a governmental agency would face in establishing consistent, principled — and universally accepted — criteria for what to allow and what to forbid. Not even 21st-century artificial intelligence can succeed where Supreme Court justices have tried, and failed, for decades.

Also, the public-private distinction is blurrier in the public mind than it may be in the law, given the pervasiveness of Internet communications and the political pressure — backed by the implied threat of regulation — to which tech companies are subject.

In short, a sustained corporate-led crackdown could silence much speech that ought to be allowed, while fueling the ultra-right’s persecution complex, rendering the movement increasingly fanatical and pushing it deeper underground.

The one thing you can be sure won’t happen, though, is that people committed to extreme politics will stop trying to express their ideas however they can, up to and including seeking assistance from abroad.

Late in the Cold War, shortwave radio was still considered sophisticated technology, and El Salvador’s Marxist guerrillas got their insurrectionist message out via clandestine Radio Venceremos, despite intense U.S.-backed Salvadoran military efforts to capture the transmitter. The rebels broadcast from caves, forests and remote villages — sanctuary and technical support from Nicaragua and Cuba helped, too. And the government never managed to knock them off the air.

I covered that story as a young journalist in the 1980s. I also covered genocide and inter-ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia a few years later. A contributing factor to the violent breakup of that multinational state was the Communist government’s suppression of speech and writings about ethnic and national conflict deemed incompatible with the official line of “brotherhood and unity.”

The result was to preserve a superficial harmony, while, in the shadows, cranks and extremists obsessed over the most sensitive issues of identity. Some of these people would later lead the ethnically based parties that tore the country apart after dictator Josip Broz Tito’s death in 1980.

Of course, unrestrained media can directly foment violence and even genocide, as shown by a different case, that of Rwanda, where Hutu radio stations stirred up the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in 1994.

Nor has absolute free speech been the historical norm in the United States: Governments and businesses have tried to silence or marginalize everyone from abolitionists to anti-World War I activists to pornographers at different points in our history.

Many of these efforts reflected bigotry or worse; some reflected the inherent dilemma of responding to movements, like the one that attacked the Capitol, that use democratic freedom to destroy democratic freedom.

On the whole, however, history has not been kind to speech suppression in the United States. Instead, it has confirmed the wisdom of those who supported maximal free expression, even at times of real national danger. We need to remember that wisdom now.

Read more from Charles Lane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Fred Hiatt: Trump’s and Hawley’s free-speech rights are perfectly intact. But the senator has half a point.

David Von Drehle: How do liberty and human rights survive the age of the Internet?

Megan McArdle: Yes, the Trump mob distrusts the media. But you can’t blame journalists for what happened.

Jennifer Rubin: We need to expand the notion of accountability for the Capitol attack

Cori Bush: This is the America that Black people know