Insights Preslav Tonkov

The paradox of free speech

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper argued that unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. Intolerant groups will use their platform to dominate public discourse and institutions to destroy tolerance. Thus free speech can only be extended to individuals which are themselves tolerant of others, not to those who refuse to accept outcomes or see no dividing line between fact and fiction.

On Thursday last week, Vice President Mike Pence announced that President-elect Joe Biden had won the presidency after the US Congress had completed the Electoral College count. In the culminating act of a presidency defined by the term “fake news”, an angry mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S Capitol, leaving five people dead in the melee.

More dystopian still, instead of calling out the criminals, Mr. Trump then posted a one-minute video to Twitter, telling the rioters they were “special” but they “need to go home now.”

As philosopher Hannah Arendt would have observed, the individuals which made up this mob are the perfect subjects of totalitarianism not because they are ideologically committed to Trumpism, but because for them “the distinction between fact and fiction … no longer exist.”

How was this possible? The nostalgic post-WWII story of American conservatives describes a world where employment was abundant and all one needed to do to get a job was to turn up to a local factory. Workers’ security became a vital component of the social contract because the American state looked after its own as Yuval Levin argues in The Fractured Republic. This relative optimism was crushed as globalisation pressured local labour markets. Manufacturing was shipped away, leaving behind a large proportion of the population under or unemployed with little hope and few prospects.

Perhaps this nostalgic narrative strikes a chord for many in post-industrial towns across Western Europe. Politicians like Trump seemingly understood those grievances and legitimate concerns. Yet, in their determination to take advantage of disillusioned “losers” from globalisation, such figures have side-lined their principles, and as result stopped guaranteeing factual information. This is a development which has far-reaching consequences for public debate.

In the last few years, cancel culture and de-platforming have become issues of great importance. With social media platforms applying content moderation at an increasing speed, on Friday we witnessed the culmination of this trend as Donald Trump was permanently banned from Twitter. This has now created a powerful precedent: social media companies are now closer to being considered as publishers responsible for the content on their platforms. Increasing regulation is around the corner.

It is easy to pretend that societies were more unified and cohesive before newspapers were torn apart by social media. The reality is that those people who are at odds with one another online in today’s world in the past would have had far fewer forums of debate.

Last week, social media owners stepped into the role of refereeing public discourse. Their changing status as guardians of what can be said is unprecedented and there will be those worried that it will make the internet less free, democratic or tolerant. It might well do the opposite and allow us to return to a world in which the distinction between fact and fiction is real.