The Debate Over Free Speech Online

How Free Speech Dies Online

And, on the same note, is it so dangerous to let Richard Spencer shitpost on Twitter that stopping him is worth giving up on the idea of social media being a forum for the free exchange of opinion? His arguments do not seem to be gaining much traction. The 2016 convention of Spencer’s National Policy Institute, held less than two weeks after Donald Trump’s victory, drew a crowd of only about 275. The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, one of the largest gatherings of far-Right activists in decades, which devolved into violent clashes during which a Nazi murdered a counter-protester with his car, had only about 500 attendees from a range of far-Right groups. And when the organizers of the Charlottesville rally decided to hold a second Unite the Right event in 2018, only a few dozen far-Right activists showed up. By contrast, Bronycon, the convention for adult men who are fans of the television program My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, drew a crowd of 5,500 attendees in 2018. For every Nazi in America, there are eleven Bronies. Media outlets that fixate on the far-Right are vastly overstating the influence of these groups.

Protection of speech and assembly are delineated in the Constitution of the United States, so there is no debate whether they should be allowed to speak or not, at least offline. For better or worse, there is no such thing as free speech online. Even Gab in certain instances removes stuff. The only option is for different groups to create their own platforms, so Nazis create their own YouTube and Twitter equivalents, etc. But then the issue comes up regarding infrastructure such as ISPs, domain registrars, and hosting also censoring. It then becomes not a speech issue, but an infastructure one.

If a business deems it counterproductive to host certain content, then it’s understandable that it should be under no obligation to. This seems self-evident, yet knowing this, we oppose de-platforming and censorship. The result is a sort of cognitive dissonance where we want free speech online yet also support the autonomy of online businesses to act in accord with their best interests. It’s hard to find a good middle ground.