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Walsh ’23: Conspiracy theories do not belong in the marketplace of ideas

Twitter’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump’s personal account and purge its platform of conspiracy-peddling profiles has breathed new life into America’s free speech culture war. The usual suspects have come out of the woodwork, with conservatives lamenting that supposed liberal hegemony in Big Tech is marginalizing right-wing voices, and liberals maintaining that social media platforms have a right and a duty to remove dangerous and conspiratorial content. 

Free discourse is a valuable asset to American democracy, but dangerous online disinformation does not deserve the same sort of respect as normal political speech. As long as the American government and citizenry are wary of Big Tech and its influence over discourse, there is no reason to worry that Twitter, by banning certain users, is setting a dangerous precedent of censorship.

First, and importantly, Twitter’s ban on Trump and other conspiracy-purveying accounts is not a First Amendment issue. As any basic civics or American government course will teach, the First Amendment constrains the state from abridging speech. A private entity like Twitter, even with its massive role in modern public discourse, lacks the same duty to protect speech. 

This is not to diminish the cultural and historical significance of the First Amendment. Informed by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual liberty and self-actualization, the Framers ensconced a right to free speech and free press in the First Amendment. Political philosopher John Stuart Mill’s theory of free speech, which he expounded in his seminal work On Liberty in 1859, lends a utilitarian flavor to First Amendment philosophy. It has become a popular and convincing rationale for free speech defenders. Mill argued that only by having “complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion” could someone “have any rational assurance of being right.” In other words, a society that restricts speech cannot discover the truth, since censoring speech limits its ability to analyze its own beliefs and identify the correct ones. Under Mill’s theory, it is important not only for the government to ensure free discourse, but also for private citizens to do so — otherwise, public debate would be less robust, and society will be less able to embrace the correct beliefs and reject the wrong ones. In modern parlance, Mill’s philosophy supports a “marketplace of ideas.” I agree with Mill: it would be wrong, though not necessarily unconstitutional, for one group to use its dominance to suppress another group’s voice. 

But the proposal for a “marketplace of ideas” does not extend to snake oil salesmen. Mill wanted people to be free to express falsehoods, but as a utilitarian, he had an end goal in all of this: the ascertainment of truth. His assumption that robust public discourse would rid society of false beliefs did not consider the landscape of the 21st century, where conspiracy theories — including violent ones — run wild on the internet despite continuously being discredited by authoritative sources. 

Modern conspiracy theories about election fraud and deep state pedophiles do more than just mislead — they also contribute directly to violence and social disorder. The most obvious example is last month’s Capitol insurrection, in which a pro-Trump mob animated by the former president’s voter fraud myth stormed the Capitol, resulting in five deaths. On the same day, pipe bombs were found at both the Democratic and Republican National Headquarters. And it turns out that many of the rioters were not only staunch Trump supporters, but also followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which asserts that the U.S. government is overrun by Satan-worshipping pedophiles that only Trump could eliminate. Even the most steadfast free speech purist would have a difficult time arguing that these widely-discredited, violence-inducing conspiracy theories deserve a place in the marketplace of ideas. Contrary to Mill’s theory, allowing the spread of falsehoods on social media seems to have brought many Americans farther from the truth. For a great number of these conspiracy theorists, constant fact-checks by the mainstream media have been futile. 

The fact that these conspiracy theories have been spreading on the internet adds even more urgency to social media’s crusade against disinformation. The internet has proven to be a double-edged sword for political organizing: On the one hand, it helped activists organize the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the Women’s Marches over the past few years, but on the other it has also allowed conspiracy theorists from far and wide to collectively reinforce dangerous beliefs. This is exactly what happened with QAnon. The theory had relatively humble beginnings: In October of 2017, a 4chan user named Q posed as a federal government insider alleging a “deep state” plot to oust Donald Trump. Since then, the theory has developed into an elaborate web of myths about Satan worship and pedophilia. It has also become a worryingly cohesive community. 

While 4chan is a relatively obscure platform to most Americans, other more popular ones like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been ready points of entry for newly-minted Q-followers. As QAnon indicatess, the more a conspiracy theory grows, the more opportunity there is for believers to make increasingly bizarre — and dangerous — additions to the theory. If platforms like Twitter close their door to QAnon, however, they can prevent ordinary people from being radicalized and slow the proliferation of even wackier QAnon beliefs.

Critics of Twitter’s decision to shut down Trump and other conspiracy peddlers believe that the suspensions portend a future in which the site could use its power to silence whomever it desires. Right now, that does not seem to be a pending problem: Almost all of the more prominent purveyors of the voter fraud myth, like Twitter personality @DC_Draino and Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, have retained their platforms on Twitter. It appears that only the most extreme accounts, plus Trump, were removed. 

Still, Twitter has the power to capriciously censor any user it wants. Given the platform’s massive influence on public discourse, applying this power beyond the duty to combat violent misinformation would defy our culture of free speech. One solution would be government oversight of Twitter. A federal takeover of the platform would reek of authoritarianism, but a periodic review of Twitter’s content moderation policies by a non-partisan, Congressionally-approved agency could strike an effective balance. 

Twitter was right to end its laissez-faire approach to conspiracy theories. In doing so, it will likely slow the rate at which ordinary people get radicalized. But the damage has been done. Seventeen percent of respondents in an NPR survey in December said that they believe Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers are trying to control the government. And now, there is a freshman House representative — Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — who has expressed support for QAnon and a host of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. While shutting down conspiracy theories on social media is a good place to start, as a country we need to think long and hard about what got us to this point in the first place. Adapting our understanding of free speech to the digital age will not be an easy task — but the health of our democracy depends on it. 


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