A controversy broke out on social media this weekend: Taylor Lorenz interviewed the (or one of the) truly horrible people behind the far right Libs of Tiktok account. It raised questions of whether one should platform the truly awful. I have been thinking of platforming such for awhile now, so I am using this as an opportunity to think through my stance (which is not at all based on a strong standing of the legalities of all of this).
Let's start with the basics that people get so very confused about:
- No one is entitled to a platform, everyone is entitled to free speech.
- To be clear, when we talk about free speech, we need to be clear that the 1st amendment in the US (and probably the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada) only restricts governments from restricting people's right to engage in free speech. Clubs and, yes, businesses can restrict the speech of their members/employees in ways that the state cannot.
- Free speech does have some restrictions--the classic is you can't yell fire as a prank in a crowded theater as that is dangerous. Inciting violence is also not so free, although your mileage may vary on what counts as incitement. Is "Free Palestine" incitement? I don't think so.
Now, that whole platform is not the same thing as free speech thing. One is not obligated to give time/space/bandwidth/whatever to anyone (in ye olde days, US tv stations had to give equal time, and when it went away, that gave room for Fox and its ilk). Universities, for example, don't have to provide stages and fora and audiences to far right speakers or even not so far right speakers. Or far left ones.
In an op-ed, I argued that the Conservative Party of Canada should not provide a prominent speaking position to a far-right retired general as that would politicize the Canadian armed forces.* Of course, the supposedly cancelled retired general then used his perch at the National Post, a right wing newspaper, to argue that I was trying to deny him free speech. Nope, I didn't say he couldn't rant in public, I was just arguing it was a bad idea for the CPC to amplify him. He is entitled to say what he wants, he is not entitled to having his speech amplified. There is a distinction here, and he is smart enough to get it, even if wants to play coy about how a dual citizen might dare to question him.
So, the question is rarely whether to deny someone free expression (although when it comes to jury tampering or inciting violence, gag orders on the Trump family seem to be not only fair but wise), but rather who to platform and under what conditions. Obviously, the starting point is the intention of the potential actor that might be platforming someone. The example of the CPC: they wanted to attack the government and found a handy tool that might make it look like they presenting mainstream military views that contradict the government. Yeah, tis bad faith bullshit, but they had that intent so they didn't care what the downstream effects will be on the military.
The example of this weekend is a lot different: it is not just giving space for a hater to speak at length, but providing a critical interview where the interviewer pushes back and gets the hater to be revealed as shallow, incoherent, virulently racist and xenophobic. To be honest, I haven't watched the entire thing because, well, yuck. I am online enough (understatement) to know what Libs of Tiktok have been doing--inciting violence against Black Americans first and now LGBTQ+ folks. That the account deliberately names individuals so that its followers can then threaten those people. Truly, truly awful. But folks who are not so online may not be aware of this, so a WashPo reporter doing an extended interview with the source of all this hate is a good way to expose what's going on. People can disagree about whether we need to hear from the source directly, but this is not platforming in the sense of giving someone a megaphone and letting them spread their views. Recently, the governor of Oklahoma gave this far right white nationalist a position on the state's library advisory council. That is giving someone a platform. And then a non-binary kid gets killed, and the governor then acts all shocked.
Anyhow, sometimes these decisions are tricky because we want to expose awful people, but we don't want to provide awful people with greater audiences. Folks might argue that we need the marketplace of ideas to sort this out, but like most markets and most invocations of the market metaphor, it really doesn't work like the metaphor. Ideas do not win or lose based on the quality of their debaters or the quality of the ideas themselves. They win or lose based on what people do and who has the power. That a far right white supremacist owns and controls twitter is a real problem that cannot be sorted out by everyone sharing their competing ideas online. Musk is platforming far right racist and xenophobic stuff, and he is blocking stuff that is critical. Suspending Navalny's wife a day or two after his death is a real tell.
Ultimately, journalists and organizations have to be prudent about who they give platforms and who they do not. Again, no one is entitled to the front page or the editorial page or the university's biggest stage. Every decision to give someone a platform is just that a decision, which should be based on the benefits and the costs. Academic freedom suggests giving space to a wide range of views, but there is no need to bring back that which has been thoroughly discredited--like flat earthers or those who buy into eugenic stuff or bell curves and IQ tests or antivaxxers.
And, yes, we live in a time where Democracy is under threat. Which is a bigger danger: giving anti-democratic forces the megaphone or denying them platforms and then having those forces try to make those institutions feel bad for being hypocritical? The bad faith actors want to use our values against ourselves. It can be tricky about how to respond but respond we must.
So, that's my incoherent rambling on this topic. You are required to read it, to respond, or to share it via social media.
* I realize that folks can argue whether Maisonneuve is right wing or far right, but my coding rule these days if one uses "woke" disparagingly and essentially slurs those who are not cis straight folks, they are far right. If right wing folks want to say that is not fair, that those are mainstream views of the right, well, they are telling on themselves about where they are.