One of my favourite subjects in political philosophy is the concept of freedom, especially freedom of speech. A recent event has brought this subject into the public domain. The Subreddit purge of problematic pages.
In many cases, on internet forums such as Facebook and YouTube I have seen actions such as the Subreddit purge be defended by appealing to their right as a business to platform whoever they wish. I have seen similar justifications such as ‘it is their terms of service (TOS)’. And these justifications often come from progressives that would usually be critics of neoliberalism.
Before continuing on, I would like to briefly cover two concepts that are relevant to my criticism of such justifications: neoliberalism and republican freedom. Neoliberalism is the ideology that supports capitalism in its entirety. It supports a strong free market with minimal government intervention on private businesses. Republican freedom was coined by philosopher Phillip Pettit. This kind of freedom is not merely the freedom to not be interfered with, but an environment where someone else does not have the power to interfere with you.
Pettit uses a thought experiment from an old play called ‘A Doll’s house’. In this play, a woman named Nora lives in a time where the husband holds all the economic, legal and social power in the relationship. However, Nora’s husband adores her so much, he never exploits this power and allows her to do whatever she wishes. Pettit argues that even though she is never interfered with, she is not free. She is not free because her husband at a whim could change his mind and exploit that power he possesses. Therefore, Nora lacks republican freedom.
When actions by private media platforms impose rules on who gets a platform, who is removed, who is rewarded, who is punished, and so on, these decisions are completely up to them under neoliberalism. This is why justifications for these decisions such ‘it’s their platform’ and ‘it’s their TOS’ implicity either supports a neoliberal attitude towards social media platforms or assumes there is no alternative.
The problems of this neoliberal attitude arise when we consider the consequences of monopolies. Social media has been monopolised. There are few alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube that offer comparable services with the similar reach. The father of economics, Adam Smith, coined the term ‘the invisible hand’ as a metaphor for the free market’s ability to avoid monopolies from occuring and that a free market would naturally lead to the good. However, as former president of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”
This is where Republican freedom becomes relevant. When social media is monopolised and there are no controls on how these companies regulate speech, we are at the whims of these companies. So, even though Subreddit may be correct in removing certain content, justifying it on the premise that it is their right to do so as private owners sets a dangerous precedent. Imagine if Subreddit decides that all leftist content is divisive and does a purge of all progressives. Conservatives overjoyed with this news could equally respond with justification ‘it’s their platform’. This scenario is not entirely fanciful. Recently Marxist Political Scientist Adolph Reed was disinvited to talk at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) due to accusations of being a ‘class reductionist’.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the decisions made are unjustified, only that grounding our justification by appealing to the right for businesses to do as they please is a bad argument. And it’s a bad argument that sets a dangerous precedent. The issue of deplatforming has a similar relationship. The incident involving Adolph Reed is an example of deplatforming. There can be legitimate and illegitimate reasons for deplatforming a speaker, but framing the justification on the right of the providers to platform/deplatform as they wish inherits the same issues. If we continue on the trajectory of media and platforms in the hands of the few and encourage a neoliberal philosophy of ‘they can do what they like’, then the republican freedom of speech is under serious threat.