Free Speech And Online Propaganda

The recent revelations about Facebook have crystalized a growing–and perhaps insoluble– problem for free speech purists like yours truly. 

I have always been convinced by the arguments first advanced in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty  and the considerable scholarship supporting the basic philosophy underlying the  First Amendment: yes, some ideas are dangerous, but allowing government to determine which ideas can be expressed would be far more dangerous.

I still believe that to be true when it comes to the exchange of ideas in what we like to call the “marketplace of ideas”–everything from private conversations, to public and/or political pronouncements, to the publication of books, pamphlets, newspapers and the like–even to broadcast “news.” 

But surely we are not without tools to regulate social media behemoths like Facebook–especially in the face of overwhelming evidence that its professed devotion to “free speech” is merely a smokescreen for the platform’s real devotion–to a business plan that monetizes anger and hate.

We currently occupy a legal free-speech landscape that I am finding increasingly uncomfortable: Citizens United and its ilk basically endorsed a theory of “free” speech that gave rich folks megaphones with which to drown out ordinary participants in that speech marketplace. Fox News and its clones–business enterprises that identified an “underserved market” of angry reactionaries–were already protected under traditional free speech doctrine. (My students would sometimes ask why outright lying couldn’t be banned, and I would respond by asking them how courts would distinguish between lying and wrongheadedness, and to consider just how chilling lawsuits for “lying” might be…They usually got the point.) 

Americans were already dealing–none too successfully– with politically-motivated distortions of our information environment before the advent of the Internet. Now we are facing what is truly an unprecedented challenge from a platform used by billions of people around the globe–a platform with an incredibly destructive business model. In brief, Facebook makes more money when users are more “engaged”–when we stay on the platform for longer periods of time. And that engagement is prompted by negative emotions–anger and hatred.

There is no historical precedent for the sheer scale of the damage being done. Yes, we have had popular books and magazines, propaganda films and the like in the past, and yes, they’ve been influential. Many people read or viewed them. But nothing in the past has been remotely as powerful as the (largely unseen and unrecognized) algorithms employed by Facebook–algorithms that aren’t even pushing a particular viewpoint, but simply stirring mankind’s emotional pot and setting tribe against tribe.

The question is: what do we do? (A further question is: have our political structures deteriorated to a point where government cannot do anything about anything…but I leave consideration of that morose possibility for another day.)

The Brookings Institution recently summarized legislative efforts to amend Section 230–the provision of communication law that provides platforms like Facebook with immunity for what users post. Whatever the merits or dangers of those proposals, none of them would seem to address the elephant in the room, which is the basic business model built into the algorithms employed. So long as the priority is engagement, and so long as engagement requires a degree of rage (unlikely with pictures of adorable babies and cute kittens), Facebook and other social media sites operating on the same business plan will continue to strengthen divisions and atomize communities.

The men who crafted America’s constitution were intent on preventing any one part of the new government from amassing too much power–hence separation of powers and federalism. They could not have imagined a time when private enterprises had the ability to exercise more power than government, but that is the time we occupy. 

If government should be prohibited from using its power to censor or mandate or otherwise control expression, shouldn’t Facebook be restrained from–in effect–preferring and amplifying intemperate speech?

I think the answer is yes, but I don’t have a clue how we do that while avoiding unanticipated negative consequences. 


  1. For one, as I’ve already mentioned, Frances is an intelligence shill or she’d be getting fried in court by Zuckerberg for corporate espionage. She’s no whistleblower. This will become obvious later…

    Facebook is a social media platform for sharing that shouldn’t have been allowed to buy all his competition, but I suspect that Mark had government assistance with that. I believe Matt Damon made that a theme in one of his Bourne movies where the CIA controlled a leading social media site. Why?

    Facebook collects a tremendous amount of data on its users, including facial recognition. The people out there who clamor about “freedom” willingly offer it up to “improve their user experience.” Those who complete horoscopes and other such fun stuff give up even more private data. Outside companies and the government pay big dollars for access.

    As a business owner, I can place an ad precisely in front of the customers I want to reach through target marketing. Very useful.

    As a user, if I dislike someone’s speech, I can “unfriend” that person, or even “block them” which means I can censor hate speech.

    Why do I need big brother or Mark to do it? I can adjust privacy data, or I can simply delete my account and stop helping Mark make billions.

    This is about control. Frances wants control of the message and so do her billionaire supporters. Mark has already moved on to the metaverse instead of suing her which says all you need to know.

    The internet was supposed to democratize or decentralize communication, but as Julian Assange said over a decade ago, the powers that be, saw the potential and decided to control it. The libertarian techies are about decentralization whereas the oligarchs who control the government want the control.

    It needs to be in the hands of the users versus owned by an institution. That is the solution to everything in this world.

  2. I use Facebook daily; primarily because family and friends, with few exceptions, have stopped using E-mail to communicate. I prefer E-mail for personal contact but have found family and friends I lost touch with through the years and its Messenger service is helpful. For some reason; I rarely get the harmful, propaganda, dangerous, misinformation which seems to be the problem being addressed against Facebook. There are always those whose personal beliefs and insulting information appear; I have blocked them or scrolled past some. The same situation is found in conversations with family and friends. There is no way to require TRUTH or FACTS in our freedom of speech; we must use our own intelligence and the information sources provided on the Internet and all other sources, the government should not have to do our thinking for us so what is the answer?

    Let’s move to the courts; today, lies are expected as the norm in testimonies and by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Too many judges are now using personal beliefs to sit on the bench at all levels of our judicial system. The federal level is worse with Trump’s questionable appointees; especially in the Supreme Court today. The Kyle Rittenhouse trial is an excellent example of violating freedom of speech when sitting Judge Schroeder disallows dead and wounded victims to be referred to as “victims” in “his” court. Specifically in the Rittenhouse trial they must be referred to as “protesters” and “looters”.

    “We currently occupy a legal free-speech landscape that I am finding increasingly uncomfortable: Citizens United and its ilk basically endorsed a theory of “free” speech that gave rich folks megaphones with which to drown out ordinary participants in that speech marketplace.”

    The tern “Citizens United” is in itself a lie; a lie which put our government on the auction block. In a sense enslaving the majority of Americans to minority rule by the wealthy and victimized by corporations which are moving our economy closer to a caste system throughout the country.

  3. Well; I am back to only having access to the comment posted before I got on the blog today, the problem which began yesterday. What can I do to help resolve this problem?

  4. JoAnn, it is called “plutocracy”. We are not heading there…we are already there. I cannot see one facet of society that has not been corrupted and bent toward the favor of the wealthy.

  5. When I get a phone call from an unrecognized number, my phone checks and alerts me before I answer if the call might be a scam. Algorithms can be designed to whatever purpose the designer has in mind. Facebook could very easily detect many outright lies and inform those seeing the meme that it is a lie. They don’t because they lose money that way. Make it unprofitable and they will change their ways.

  6. Hype can be misleading. Did Marco Rubio really mean that corporate leaders in America have become Marxists? Rubio got what he wanted: a headline. The best part of waking up may not be Folgers in your cup, but who else is saying that sixteen times a day. Distinguishing hype from an outright lie is a daunting task.

  7. The problem with Facebook is the AI that directs a user into black holes of conspiracy theories. The algorithms were shown on CNN this week that took a new generic woman ID in North Carolina that followed Trump or Pence, and showed her QAnon pages within a week. That algorithm is the problem and Zuck decided not to remove it.

    Recently, I was a member of a thyroid disease group forum that has 30k members. I left the group because the AI kept my Facebook feed only showing the activity of that group and nothing else! As it is now, every other item on my feed are advertising for topics I follow on Facebook.

    I’ve tweaked my privacy settings so that my activity is private so that even my friends don’t “see” my activity. I also NEVER post comments on public posts because Everyone can see those. We all know I’m a far left thinker so I have my Facebook silo only giving me liberal posts.

    JoAnn, I’ve seen your request for how to fix your problems with the Professor’s page here and I suspect it’s your internet browser software. I use Firefox except for Zoom calls because it stopped working on Firefox. I use Chrome for Zoom. On Thursdays, Microsoft sends out updates every week so something probably changed during an update. If you’re still using the AOL browser, those things still apply. Try a different browser to access the Professor’s page and see if it works. Good luck.

  8. Thank you again Sheila for allowing access to today’s comments.

    AgingLGirl; thanks, I use Google Chrome, Microsoft Security with those regular updates and Windows Security. All other items saved on my Favorite Places are still working; I have run full scan and tried Restore. When I could no longer access the blog on Favorite Places I began getting it on Sheila’s daily E-mail notice; that worked fine until yesterday. Is a puzzlement!

    Peggy; I can only use my cell phone to send and receive texts, only family and a few friends and notices from CVS regarding prescriptions. Phone calls are listed separately by phone numbers only, I simply delete them. My E-mail address receives 150 – 200 SPAM calls daily which I must delete each one 3 times to make it permanently gone. I am seriously electronically challenged so not sure what would happen if I remove my information from the web.

  9. It’s long been true that innovative companies have had to create the markets that they serve. Nobody knows that their life would be improved by this gadget until they notice that all of their friends have one then basic competition kicks in.

    The same concept applies to Fox and Facebook (which I will hereafter refer to as Foxbook because they are the same business but shouting through different media.) That is they first have to create the anger and hate to monetize with growth.

    Unfortunately, they both are successful business models.

    If we were so bold as to presume to legislate successful business models think of how threatening that would be to those whose personal business plan is to find ways to live off of wealth redistribution up. That would definitely cause the cause of reclaiming society votes in the democracy because those that it would threaten now know how to program voters with wealth.

  10. For all the blather about accountability, we really don’t have accountability for harms caused by corporate interests (Look at what Johnson & Johnson is doing about baby powder.). While I agree that having the government regulate speech, religion, or guns might not be good, I think suing a product supply chain for damages caused is a splendid idea. Let a jury decide if someone or some company is responsible for inciting riots or producing massacres. I think that it would engender a culture of responsibility. Take the profit out of those things.

    Remember that we got here because a guy was trying to rate the appearance of women and his motto was “Move fast and break things.” Can’t we at least hold him accountable for what he breaks?

  11. When I typed my comment earlier, I finished and it posted, but I couldn’t see it. I could only see the first comment from Todd. I rebooted my IPad thinking that was the problem. And, I see 10 comments now while adding this one.

    Something weird is happening like JoAnn mentioned Professor. I’d have your son look into it.

  12. I refreshed after posting and my last recent comment isn’t there. Only 9 comments showing, FYI


  13. Zuckerberg did not anticipate that his algorithims would create a divisive world. He underestimated the power of connection through fear and anger. It’s too bad he cannot set up his AI in such a way that whenever someone goes to hate speech, they are inundated with uplifting, positive messages on Facebook.

    My AI takes me to positive or funny messages. I block those engaging in hate speech regardless of whether they are blue or red.

    It has always seemed that negativity is more powerful than optimism. i.e. one negative criticism can undermine 5 positive affirmations.

    The only thing I think I can do in that matter is to keep me comments civil and/or positive on social media.

    And again, along with Shiela, I have to wonder what an improvement in civics education could do with all this isolating silos.

    Buddha’s right speech principle encourages people to engage in civil speech, confrontations that are respectful, and compliments that are sincere.

  14. I’m wondering if Facebook & Twitter hadn’t cut Trump off on 1/6 would the outcome of the insurrection/attemped coup been different? If those lines of communication had been left open would more of his fans been inspired to “come on down” and join in?
    What was the motivation for those private sector businesses to stop Trump’s continuing to incite a rampage? Did Twitter & FB decide they didn’t want to help facilitate coup, or were they concerned of being held responsible for damages?

  15. JoAnn, there are many possibilities for why you may be having the issues you’ve described. I may be able to help. As AgingLGirl notes, it’s most likely related to your browser, but it may be related to settings, recently-introduced bugs or behaviour changes, addons, viruses, etc. The fact that you are having trouble with email deletion as well suggests that there may be more going on.

    I hesitate to post my email directly in this message (although I think you posters are all pretty trustworthy, I don’t know everyone who reads this, or who may read this in the future). Perhaps Sheila (or whoever monitors this site) can pass my email along to you? I’d need to ask a lot more questions and get more information from you about what’s happening, and that goes well beyond the scope of these blog posts.

  16. On the topic of the day, I think Facebook is addictive, but of course, it’s _trying_ to be. Its algorithms appear to be training the empathy right out of us; possibly actually _changing_ us at a fundamental level.

    Honestly, it’s horrifying to me the effect that Facebook and Fox News have had on humanity in the past 20 years. I suspect the names Mark Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch will live on in infamy due to the destructive power of their products.

  17. Does FaceBook have the authority to delete from FB a post of Ethiopian Prime minister Abiy Ahmed for what FB deemed to be “inflammatory language,” as described by Declan Walsh writing in 11/4/21 New York Times?

    Domestically, we wonder whether FB should be charged with policing “intemperate language,” but internationally, is FB already an arm of the US State Department and Intelligence Community?

  18. I do not use FB, expect that I never will, especially in light of the understanding of the purpose of its algorithms. It is sad enough that Zuckerberg was able to steal the initial idea,
    and has gone on to amass so much power.
    People talk about, or promote petitions about breaking up FB, but if there is no change that can reign in the ability of such companies to fuel hatred, and division, what will that accomplish?

  19. Facebook presents a number of problems

    First, with the deification of “intellectual property”, their algorithms are secret, although the effects are not. If we could see them, we might be able to counteract them. Google keeps changing their search engine algorithms, but people still have learned how to game the system and have their web page pop to the top of the search results.

    Second we have an 18th Century concept of “free speech” in a 21st Century world.
    Here is my view.
    “Free speech” is about content. The government cannot preemptively censor you, but corporations can.
    The other aspect, which needs to be separated is delivery.
    Sheila alluded to my analogy of why the Supremes were supremely wrong on money and speech. Imagine a public square (I think of the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park). Imagine this for sale.
    $1 – a box to stand on
    $500 – a megaphone
    $10,000 – a sound truck
    $1,000,000 – a mobile sound system strong enough to level a stadium or concert hall
    That is the real effect of money – not more speech, but the ability of one person to drown out the opposition – remember (not that it helped) that the Republican Party (or the Goldwater campaign) paid NBC to take “That Was the Week That Was” off the air, replacing it with 30 minute spots, but also not allowing NBC to reschedule the show. NBC was happy to take the money.

    As for Facebook – whether it meets the legal definition of a monopoly, in effect, it is. The estimate of 200 million users is almost 2/3 the entire US population. For one monopoly to control the type of information that is made available is not healthful for the country. Changing that does not threaten free-speech. We cannot and should not tell Facebook what to allow, but given their outsized power, we should not let them throttle voices that aren’t inflammatory enough for their bottom line.

    Sadly, the existing remedies are weak. We can break it up with anti-trust rulings.
    However, think of this –
    I was dragged onto Facebook when I ran for office – I needed to have an Internet presence, Facebook page, website, Twitter account, etc.
    Then it turned out that my high school reunion was planned over Facebook. Since then I have used it to keep in touch with old friends. Former co-workers have found me as well.
    Also, my family started to use Facebook.

    So I have one place to go to keep in touch with family, high school friends, former co-workers, and my political friends. Broken up, it loses value to me.

    Still, we need to remember that they are using their secret algorithm to throttle free speech, which they have the right to do, but is seriously damaging. If we recognize the difference between “content” and “delivery”, we might avoid a repeat of the terrible Citizens United decision.

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