Free Speech For Whom?April 27, 2022
Marc Andreessen - Netscape founder, vulture capitalist, and the most literally egg-headed person I know of - recently tweeted this.
Besides the obvious problem of trying to poison the well by implying that anyone who disagrees is connected to an anti-free-speech conspiracy, this represents a very common set of misconceptions (deceptions) about freedom of speech. Maximalist free speech will always appeal to those like Marc who can always be sure they’ll have the biggest megaphone. But that’s not real freedom of speech. To explain, I’ll have to take you all on a bit of a winding road.
In the mathematical study of network flow (which includes not just computer networks but electrical grids and interconnected systems of roads or water/sewer lines), there’s something called Braess’s Paradox. It’s the observation that sometimes adding a road can decrease overall traffic flow. The corollary is that sometimes closing a road (or IIRC adding one in the “wrong” direction) can increase total flow. There’s a parallel in economics: markets are most truly free when certain behaviors are regulated. A market dominated by trusts, cartels, insider trading, and other forms of manipulation by moneyed parties is anything but free. Sports also have rules and referees for a reason. These results might seem counterintuitive, but “some local restriction increases global freedom” is a very common and well proven phenomenon.
OK, back to internet free speech. The same principle applies there. What I should have said before is that maximalist “free speech” (with the quotes) always appeals etc. Historically the rich could just buy a platform such as a newspaper. This still happens, e.g. with Murdoch or Bezos. But in the internet age, the most valuable platforms are internet-specific platforms and Twitter is a prime example. People like Musk and Andreessen can get that megaphone in the form of followers, sock-puppets and bots to amplify their own message and harass proponents of any other. Algorithmic ranking also plays a role, as it tends to bury all but one narrative at the end of an infinite scroll - i.e. functionally equivalent to their having been removed. I think the right (and libertarians) hate such ranking because they would rather blame someone else than admit they are a minority, and to justify their use of sock-puppets etc. “Just making up for others’ unjust treatment” they tell themselves. Affirmative action for assholes, I reply. Meanwhile, the left dislikes algorithmic ranking because of the result after the right’s manipulation. Turns out it’s just a bad idea all around.
Andreessen even tacitly admits this point when he talks about freedom of reach in the middle of his endless stream of bad-faith arguments. (BTW I’m pretty sure the real Frederick Douglass would be horrified and disgusted at the way Andreessen twists his words.) Freedom to speak without any chance to be heard means nothing. I’m not saying everyone has a right to be listened to, let alone to say anything without consequences as the Musk/Trump imitators would have it, but I will say that people should have an equal chance to be heard. Imagine a town hall where anyone can speak but some must do so within a cone of silence, unheard except by those banished to the same cone. Burying all but one opinion under a mountain of trash is not real free speech, but it’s exactly what the plutocrats want. They only focus on and oppose the hard power of laws so that they can exercise the soft power of money and the pseudo-populism it brings. The “consistency” Andreessen claims to want is really stasis, the system (and opponents) not allowed to adapt while people like him have freedom to undermine it in new ways. Its what oligarchs have always wanted.
As for me, I continue to support meaningful free speech ... just as I support meaningful equal opportunity and not just a Potemkin version of it. The freedom to sleep under bridges and eat from trash cans while our new feudal lords try to outdo each other in folly and cruelty is no freedom at all. As paradoxical as it might seem, if you want real free speech for everybody some kinds of speech-related behavior have to be disallowed.