The concept of the marketplace of ideas goes back to John Milton: “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
It was enumerated in a more fleshed-out form in John Stuart Mill’s 1859 work “On Liberty,” in which he argued the freedom of speech is necessary for people to judge which ideas are the strongest.
Mill wrote that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
By the middle of the 20th century, this was almost universally thought of in the West as a moral good. In the United States, this was especially true, given the deference afforded to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in 1919’s Abrams v. United States: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
And yet, the left was busy chipping away at the marketplace.
From the 1960s onward, there were those who condemned it as a tool of the elites used to buttress existing power structures. This was just mere condemnation, however — and since it was from academia, we felt we could ignore it.
This grew into calls for deplatforming in the 2010s, based on the idea that the marketplace of ideas could privilege hate speech. Then, some were concerned the marketplace of ideas hadn’t worked out on the internet or social media, leading to calls for algorithms to be rejiggered so certain ideas could be muted. This led to a push for outright silencing or serious moderation — not just when it came to President Donald Trump, but targeting other conservatives, as well.
And now, a former Facebook executive says it’s time to use the same information warfare tactics against conservative influencers and other figures on the right that we used against Islamic State group terrorists.
On Sunday, former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” the Brian Stelter-led weekend show that maintains a surprising level of influence on the left.
Stamos, on his Twitter profile, describes himself as a “[t]rustworthy tech at the Stanford Internet Observatory … and the Election Integrity Partnership,” a group that claims to be a “coalition of research entities focused on detecting and mitigating attempts to prevent or deter people from voting or to delegitimize election results.” You can easily intuit what that means.
Stelter and Stamos — along with Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — were putatively talking about cracking down on extremist groups on social media in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. This would be an important discussion, were it not for how Stelter framed who was responsible just before the panel discussion, according to a transcript from CNN.
Citing a poll that found Trump voters didn’t necessarily trust the integrity of the election results, Stelter said: “So, the pro-Trump media’s fraud has worked. This is not a fringe point of view on the right. Disbelief in the election results is the mainstream position of Trump believers. So what is that? It’s a breakdown in trust, a breakdown in social bonds. That’s one of the storylines here. So many Americans, especially Republicans, said they have little or no faith in the media and other U.S. institutions.”
There are ways this trust could be rebuilt — although in CNN’s case, this would require Stelter’s immediate resignation along with other inflammatory opinion journalists like Don Lemon, who recently said Trump voters were on the side of the Klan. Stamos had a better idea, which was to treat conservative media sources as terrorists.
He rightly pointed out that domestic extremist groups “need to be treated like ISIS effectively … there is a history here of both between law enforcement and social media companies of being able to reduce the online presence and the influence of those groups. And then we have to work on the broader disinformation problem to try to turn down the anger that you see from that huge percentage of Republicans who believe that the election was stolen.”
How to go about this, then?
“One, there needs to be an intentional work by the social media companies collaborating together, to work on violent extremism in the same way they worked on ISIS,” Stamos said.
“So, I think, first, you have to focus on those violent extremists, and those companies have to be brave in that way. And, second, we have to turn down the capability of these conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences. There are people on YouTube, for example, that have a larger daytime — larger audience than daytime CNN, and they are extremely radical and pushing extremely radical views,” he continued.
“And, so, it is up to the Facebooks and YouTubes in particular to think about whether or not they want to be effectively cable networks for disinformation. And then we have to figure out the OANN and Newsmax problem, you know, these companies have freedom of speech, but I’m not sure we need Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and such to be bringing them into tens of millions of homes.”
Former Facebook insider Alex Stamos tells @brianstelter: “We have to turn down the capability of these Conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences… There are people on YouTube for example that have a larger audience than daytime CNN.” pic.twitter.com/gP0XtnjhCQ
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) January 17, 2021
It’s unclear who Stamos is talking about, although it’s clear that if these influencers have a “larger audience than daytime CNN,” we’re not talking about fringe voices here. More likely it’s people such as Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens.
There’s a gaping fallacy in Stamos’ argument: the lack of a connection between these “conservative influencers” and radical groups, the same way there is between radical Muslim clerics like Anjem Choudary and terrorists who join groups like those that stormed the Capitol.
In almost every way, these groups have been cut off from the wider conservative movement. Carbon-wasting alt-right figure Nick Fuentes — many of whose acolytes were inside the Capitol during the incursion — has long been considered radioactive. The same can be said of the Proud Boys, the bizarre far-right fraternity that any right-thinking individual should think twice about supporting.
But more importantly, this estrangement went both ways. Fuentes notoriously feuded with Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk and his associates for being insufficiently conservative. The line to becoming a street thug for the Proud Boys, one would be hard-pressed to argue, runs through watching “Tucker Carlson Tonight” or Steven Crowder.
That’s not really the point, though. The two most effective ways of spreading political ideas in the marketplace in 2021 are a) cable news and b) social media. If the marketplace of ideas isn’t working out for you, then you try to change the rules of the marketplace. Why? Well, conservative influencers and opinion journalists on cable news are akin to radical clerics spreading Islamic State propaganda, especially when it comes to questioning election integrity.
This isn’t to say many of the ideas currently popular anywhere on social media or cable news, on the left or the right, aren’t erroneous.
OANN’s Christina Bobb, for instance, tweeted Sunday that Joe Biden “will never be president.” She might need an extra glass of wine, I’m guessing.
On the other hand, OANN doesn’t have people on-air telling us that it’s time to deal with conservative influencers as if they were terrorists, or Don Lemon comparing Trump voters to supporters of the “Klan” and “Nazis.”
However, the only way we can get ourselves out of the death spiral of vitriol isn’t nuking the opinions we don’t like and salting the radioactive earth. Rather: “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
The problem is, Brian Stelter, Alex Stamos and their ilk aren’t convinced they’ll win. If you take the other side out before the grappling begins, it won’t get the better.
“Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either,” Mill wrote in “On Liberty.”
“The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favorable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.”
This was what we once took for granted. Now, the marketplace of ideas must be defended zealously against tech oligarchs who would use the actions of an extremist minority to ensure one side of the argument never finds the favorable circumstances to escape persecution.
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