A manifesto that can only be called incoherent

On the one hand you have the political or philosophical concept of freedom of speech, and on the other hand you have the commercial interest of various people who make lots of money by selling tv shows and magazines and tabloids, and/or the advertising they purvey. If we want to think about the political or philosophical concept of freedom of speech, we’re well advised to consult Tocqueville or Mill or Orwell rather than Murdoch or O’Reilly or…Zuckerberg.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is not impressed by Zuckerberg’s credentials to instruct the masses on free speech.

For his entire adult life, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been able to make up in hubris what he lacks in education. He continued that trend on Thursday while addressing students at Georgetown University in Washington DC, in what was billed as a major manifesto on “free speech”.

“I am here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression,” Zuckerberg said, as if anyone beyond the growing collection of authoritarian dictators seriously argues against it.

And as if Facebook didn’t have a conspicuous habit of suspending or banning women who express skepticism about the ability of men to become women by simply declaring it to be so.

Zuckerberg’s unsophisticated thoughts on free speech generated a manifesto that can only be called incoherent. Unsurprisingly, Facebook’s content regulations have been incoherent in design and in practice.

Imagine how insulting it must have been for hundreds of the brightest young minds in America, many of whom have considered deeply the history of American constitutional law and the ways it influences democracy, to sit politely and listen to billionaire who seems to have barely cracked a book on the subject and can’t seem to form a clear line of argument.

He’s a billionaire. Why would he bother cracking a book?

The speech was so weak and poorly structured that it could not have served as worse evidence in an argument for the value of speech itself. The event would have been much more valuable to Zuckerberg and his audience if the Georgetown public policy students had lectured him about the history and value of free speech. They, after all, know things and are trained to think and write clearly.

Zuckerberg made a thing that sold well. That’s not the same as knowledge or ability to think and write clearly.

For being such a key player in the young 21st century, Zuckerberg embraces an outdated, 19th-century view of speech. For him there is actually something like a marketplace of ideas through which the best ideas prevail once we encounter evidence and argument. The problem is, Facebook undermines any attempt to sustain such a practice.

We largely solved the challenge of the 19th century. By 2019 we have managed to offer most people in the world a platform for expression and a tool for constant, affordable human communication. In much of the world, speech remains beyond the reach of state control. That’s all fine, except it creates a new problem we have yet to confront.

The problem of the 21st century is cacophony. Too many people are yelling at the same time. Attentions fracture. Passions erupt. Facts crumble. It’s increasingly hard to deliberate deeply about complex crucial issues with an informed public. We have access to more knowledge yet we can’t think and talk like adults about serious things.

Is Trump the inevitable result of that state of affairs?

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