The corporate boycott of Facebook is illiberal. We need the courage to fight against it.
Who will speak for the American heritage of free and open debate?
This article first appeared in the Washington Post.
Our country has reached a boiling point. In just a few weeks, national narratives have escalated from seeking racial equality to defunding the police, toppling statues of men who abolished slavery and demands that social media companies censor speech on their platforms.
The recent corporate boycott of Facebook must be recognized for what it is: a craven capitulation to a mob that, left unopposed, would destroy free speech. More than 700 companies, including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Starbucks, have joined the #StopHateForProfit movement, led by a group of nonprofits that aims to curtail speech on social media platforms, especially Facebook.
The movement calls for suppressing harmful content or hateful activity such as vaccine misinformation, climate denialism, “dehumanizing language” and arguments for voter IDs.
Already, Facebook employs thousands of unaccountable flaggers who make subjective, ad hoc decisions on what constitutes acceptable speech. Facebook’s chief operating officer noted this week that the company strives “constantly to get better and faster at enforcing” its policies against hate, and Mark Zuckerberg announced last month that Facebook would expand prohibitions against certain content in ads and label posts that violate policies. Yet if Facebook caves to this movement’s demands, the company would have to install an Orwellian corporate bureaucracy of censors monitoring many types of speech.
Speech is often ugly. But a crown virtue of U.S. society is our commitment to free speech, including what some call hate speech. Social media platforms that aim to encourage speech have a duty to protect it as well.
I have plenty of concerns about Facebook, but I firmly support Zuckerberg’s efforts to defend freedom of expression on the platform. Facebook, Twitter and other forums aspire to be, and are, public squares. The cowardice of corporate CEOs who have sacrificed our country’s founding principles to appease an illiberal mob demanding to censor our 21st-century public squares is appalling.
Intellectual freedom is part of John Milton’s “known rules of ancient liberty,” which form the basic habitat of Western culture. This principle was beloved by Cicero, John Locke and the American founders. Tolerance of others’ expression — no matter how offensive — is a precondition for democracy.
Globally, free speech is in retreat. And censorship — whether by foreign governments or social media platforms — is always political. This is the moment American CEOs should defend the noble institution of free speech with their reputations and treasure. Instead, many business leaders are selling out a sacred American liberty in an effort to signal virtue. The advertisers boycotting Facebook this month, and possibly longer, are no better than the illiberal mob they cower before.
Those who believe that speech should be moderated have fundamentally given up on the idea that people can come to the right decisions on their own, or that free speech works anywhere. The fact that people can say whatever they want in public squares and media outlets has, over the long run, helped make our country more open and tolerant, even when partisans used those “platforms” to make arguments as vile as the basest forms of discourse.
I’m all for a boycott that fights for justice. But corporations that have temporarily or otherwise recently stopped advertising on Facebook are boycotting because they think the company isn’t censoring its users enough. Their statements imply that Americans are not to be trusted with intellectual freedom. This abandons the principle that a marketplace of ideas gradually tends toward truth and progress.
This country has traditionally stood with dissenters and devil’s advocates. CEOs should stand with the rational majority who believe in First Amendment rights to offend others and vehemently disagree. Americans should not trade freedom for the supposed comfort of safe spaces. All who believe in First Amendment protections must stand firm and defend our liberal inheritance.
Only with courage can we cultivate the other classical virtues of justice, temperance and wisdom. Facing a radical mob takes courage. So does facing an HR department or other corporate officials who have carried the self-sure illiberalism of higher education into the private sector. It also takes courage to acknowledge the positive, hopeful and just aspects of the recent protests, and to ally in their fight for justice. But this boycott is wrong because censorship will never lead our society to justice.
John Stuart Mill wrote that “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Americans of all stripes are looking for leaders who can demonstrate courage. At a time when authoritarian countries are using technology to corral speech instead of liberate it, our leaders ought to blaze a different path. Do courageous business leaders remain? Who will speak for the American heritage of free and open debate? Our country’s future hangs in the balance.