Freedom of expression and social media are intellectual silos

In a recent article for CNN, Kara Alaimo expressed some concerns about speech and social media. Although she uses the term “freedom of speech” frequently, what she’s really concerned about is unmoderated speech—that is, speech that isn’t restricted by the platform hosting the speaker.

To be clear, I believe that platforms have every right to moderate speech in any way they want, and that such moderation does not constitute censorship. Censorship, as I understand this term, only occurs when a state prohibits or prohibits certain forms of expression. If the history podcast refuses to provide a platform for the Holocaust denier, the podcast is not censored, and the Holocaust denier is not denied their right to freedom of expression. Your right to freedom of expression does not entitle you to use another person’s platform against their will.

Alaimo is concerned that social media platforms such as Twitter, Parler, and Truth Social are not aggressive enough about modulating what it deems to be “conservative” discourse. But in her article, she also explains, without realizing it, why attempts to shut down some views on these platforms will backfire in ways she finds unfortunate.

If you take people with a certain worldview (conservative, for example) and systematically remove them from a public forum, those people simply won’t disappear. Nor do they lose interest in discussing their ideas. Instead, they will simply forge a new platform designed for themselves and like-minded people. As Alaimo points out, this is exactly how platforms like Parler and Truth Social came about in the first place. And given the way these new platforms are intellectually isolated from opposing viewpoints, they end up generating more and more extreme versions of the views they originally hosted. In her words:

[T]These three social media platforms are likely to act as ecosystems of conservative thought. This is likely to radicalize the opinions of those who remain – which could have a drastic effect on our politics. This is because when like-minded people come together, they reaffirm and elevate each other’s initial beliefs… Those who remain in these conservative places will become more extreme as a result of their interactions, which can seed dangerous far-right far-right ideology. – The effects of communication on our policy.

To me, this underscores not only the value, but the critical necessity of open dialogue with a wide range of voices—especially when those voices are advocating for opinions you find distasteful. Kicking them off a platform doesn’t just keep you from hearing their disturbing opinions. It also prevents them from being exposed to opposing viewpoints as well, pushing them deeper into an intellectual silo that further solidifies and strengthens the very views that you found objectionable in the first place.

And sometimes — not always, but sometimes — an open, unmoderated discussion really works. To use one very select example, consider the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was raised in a hateful Westboro Baptist Church. She left that organization behind, and became a powerful voice for a more loving and forgiving worldview. What caused her to change her mind, abandon her worldview and lose most of her family, and become an advocate for everything she was up against? Her views were being challenged on Twitter. If Twitter banned the Phelps family early on (as I suspect Alaimo would have wanted), Megan Phelps-Roper would almost certainly continue to be a member of the Westboro Baptist Church to this day.

I will agree that cases like Megan Phelps-Roper’s are not as common as I would like them to be. Arguments often fail to drive away bad thoughts, especially when the mind is unwilling. But at the end of the day, the only tools we have for opposing bad ideas are persuasion or violence. The only way to defeat bad ideas peacefully is by exposing and engaging with those who hold them to better ideas, and the only way for that to happen is to keep the conversation open. Trying to exclude bad thoughts from a conversation doesn’t make bad thoughts go away — on the contrary, it virtually ensures that those bad thoughts will stay.

And besides, maybe I I’m the one with the bad opinions that need to be removed. If this is true, I want to know, and the only way I will ever be able to find out is by engaging with advocates of ideas quite different from mine. The more opportunities there are for this, the better.

Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and consultant in health care economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.