Post
10.25.2019

The case of Reddit shows how bad it’s gotten.

On September 27th, 2018, the behemoth online discussion forum Reddit “quarantined” 23 of its “subreddits,” subsidiary discussion threads within the larger site. Internet communities “dedicated,” in Reddit’s words, “to shocking or highly offensive content” would be placed on a kind of probation. Quarantined subreddits are disallowed from generating ad revenue. They cannot be found in searches, and it becomes impossible to see how many members subscribe to them. Quite a few of those quarantined in September were subsequently banned altogether.

All subreddits are titled according to the format “r/[nameoftopic],” and the September list included such appalling titles as “r/watchpeopledie” and “r/whitenationalism.” As a group they were ideologically quite diverse: “r/FULLCOMMUNISM” was also put on the watch list, as was “r/theredpill,” a thread infamous for hosting the various fractious splinter groups known collectively as the “Alt-Right.”

Reddit is not the only platform faced with charges of enabling online extremism, and not the only one to take measures meant to blunt them. The censorship of views deemed unpalatable by social media companies is now a matter of regular and tendentious attention, most recently because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress on October 23rd of this year. The House raised the same question that the Senate did during Zuck’s appearance there in April of 2018. Namely: what right does Facebook have to make decisions about the sorts of content you ought and ought not to consume?

As a legal matter, the answer seems to be: Facebook (or Reddit, or Google, or Twitter) has no such right, if it wants to continue enjoying the extraordinary protection from libel law that is afforded to platforms (purveyors of content) as distinct from publishers (curators of content).

But from a purely philosophical standpoint, as a measure of the zeitgeist, Reddit’s practice of quarantining actually speaks to something deeper than the law. A quarantine is something you do when you do not want something—usually a disease—to spread. To “quarantine” ideas therefore implies what you are really worried about is not that those ideas are false, but that they will catch on. Reddit’s choice to conceal membership statistics for quarantined threads betokens the same anxiety: if people know that some view or set of views has a substantial following, perhaps they will start to wonder whether there might just be something to it.

Reddit is therefore not merely trying to weed out falsehoods or incitements to violence. Such projects are already dubious enough when undertaken by an overwhelmingly liberal Silicon Valley in tandem with leftist “fact-checkers,” who are perfectly willing to smear even conservative satire with risible charges of misinformation.

But quarantining isn’t actually framed in those terms. It’s predicated on a complete unbelief in the basic principles underlying the marketplace of ideas. From John Milton to John Stuart Mill and right on into the American republic, the governing consensus has been that free men and women get to decide for themselves what they find convincing. This was the reasoning behind 1977’s National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, wherein the Supreme Court famously allowed even Nazis to demonstrate in public.

We believe—or used to believe—that if the public is empowered to consider all the options then the best ideas will win and the truth will out. Reddit’s owners have shown that they simply do not think this is the case: they believe that good ideas, as defined by them, need a thumb on the scale to help them compete in the market.

Evidence would suggest that they are actually wrong about this—before being quarantined, all 23 of the threads targeted in September had (on the unlikely assumption that none of them shared any subscribers in common) a collective membership of 1,363,282. That’s 0.42% of the U.S. population.

But let’s imagine that a group which Reddit considered heinous did show signs of gaining real traction. Would that not suggest that the beliefs espoused by that group deserved a hearing, not a health warning? Shouldn’t people be allowed to get swayed, if they are swayed, even by arguments which their “betters” deplore?

Discussing the Zuckerberg hearings, 60 Minutes host John Dickerson said at Slate this week that Facebook should nix posts which present “characterizations and framings and elevations of certain issues that distort political reality…but that don’t have a specific fact that can be pinpointed…to remove them.” Emily Bazelon, in agreement with Dickerson, endorsed censorship of such material “even if it’s not completely false.” Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, went so far as to suggest that Facebook should “sit out” the 2020 election and muzzle political advertising entirely, “given what happened in 2016.”

There is reasonable discussion to be had about how to navigate and manage our new informational ecosystem. But at this point, that discussion is no longer being framed by the Left in the terms essential to free speech. Leftist dogma is instead threaded through with an extremist rhetoric of suppression and control. That control—tyrannous and self-satisfied as it is—should be resisted at every turn.

is assistant editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. His book on ancient Greek music is forthcoming with Bloomsbury, and his devotional writing can be found at www.rejoice-evermore.com.

More Thoughts

Post
01.20.2020

We Live in an Anti-Society

An Untimely Review of Joker.

I finally watched Joker, the much-hyped, and now award-winning, ersatz superhero movie which had the Twitterati up in arms back when it first came out. It recently won two Golden Globes—one for the best performance by an actor in a motion picture, which went to Joaquin Phoenix in his role as the titular character, and…

Post
01.18.2020

The Empty Cinema

Robert Downey Jr.’s failures in Doolittle are the failures of American film today.

Robert Downey Jr. is the only actor of his generation to play memorable characters whom audiences really and truly love. He resurrected his career, after all, playing Iron Man for more than a decade, taking breaks along the way to play Sherlock Holmes in two very successful Guy Ritchie movies. His attempted third, Dolittle, falls…

Post
01.17.2020

The Spirit of ’76

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech casts a golden thread across three centuries, connecting us to the source of the American dream.

This post is the third in a series by Christopher Flannery (author of The American Story podcast) reflecting on America’s identity and founding ideals—and their implications for 2020. Here are the first and second installments.—Eds. If you’re driving through Wright, Wyoming (a few hundred miles east of Jackson, 5,000 feet or so above sea level,…