Free speech in the post-truth era

By Dr Robert Simpson, Associate Professor, Dept of Philosophy, UCL

This guest blog is a response to the findings of Demos’ open survey on people’s online lives, as part of the Renew Normal project:

The survey data coming out of the Renew Normal Project confirm what many free speech experts know from experience – people’s views about free speech tend to split into two firmly opposing camps. Some of us take the classical liberal view, which is deeply suspicious of government restrictions on speech. Others take a more pro-government view, which accepts the legitimacy and value of government restrictions aimed at curbing speech that’s abusive, misleading, or egregiously offensive. The way people’s views on these issues cluster together, into two opposing camps, suggests that people aren’t forming their opinions about free speech policies issue-by-issue. Rather, our general feelings about the trustworthiness or untrustworthiness of government shape our specific opinions about a whole range of policy issues relating to the regulation of speech. 

Why do people’s attitudes divide up this way? An old-fashioned answer would be that we have different levels of fear or anxiety about the prospect of authoritarianism. Some people’s image of the government is of cold, faceless bureaucrats, deciding ordinary people’s fates from their citadels of power, and using jack-booted thugs to enforce their diktats. For these people, any government, however benign it might present itself as being, is liable to slide down the slippery slope towards tyranny. By contrast, other people’s vision of the government is a more optimistic and agreeable one: the government is really just us, the people, delegating authority to representatives so that we can collectively address the challenges we all face. For these people, governments are not naturally inclined to collapse into tyranny, any more than ordinary people are naturally inclined to become violent criminals. Most governments – like most people – will behave in a pro-social way as long as they have a favourable environment and the basic resources they need. 

Part of what’s interesting about these survey data is that they show the anxieties about government – for those who see free speech as a sacred, inviolable commitment – to be more targeted than the above story would suggest. The survey participants whose opinions fall in the libertarian cluster have a quite specific worry about the government’s epistemic reliability, that is to say, its ability to responsibly govern in matters of belief, truth, and knowledge. For example, 75% of participants in the libertarian opinion cluster (who voted on the statement) agree that “it is impossible to insist ‘information on social media must be factually correct’, because defining a ‘fact’ is often not black and white”. (By comparison, only 32% of participants in the opposite cluster who voted on the statement agreed with it.) This is a striking result. Consider the far-reaching implications of this sceptical stance, when applied outside of debates about the regulation of social media. If the facts are never black and white, and if the government thus shouldn’t impose standards of factual correctness, vast swathes of regulatory law are called into question. Legal restrictions on misleading advertising, libel, false medical advice, perjury, and fraud cannot be administered unless we trust legal officials or government agencies to reliably determine the facts on the ground. Flirtations with post-truth scepticism may have wilder ramifications than its supporters realise. 

Granted, there are some genuine reasons to be sceptical about the government’s ability to arbitrate in matters of belief, truth, and knowledge. Barely a week goes by without news of government actors bending or breaking the truth, in the pursuit of their personal or party-political goals. Government actors aren’t paragons of honesty. But the key question isn’t whether government actors can be relied on to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. The question is how determinations of fact are going to be made if we’re unwilling to trust government agencies to act as factual arbiters. It is a fantasy – one of the enduring fantasies of classical free speech theory – that market mechanisms can reliably separate true information from false information. The ideas that win out in a marketplace of ideas aren’t necessarily true. What it takes for ideas to win out in the market is that they are popular, and popular ideas aren’t bound to be true, any more than popular leaders are bound to be competent. Relying on the marketplace of ideas to sift the true from the false is just another way of abandoning the entire project of trying to establish a common public store of facts. 

Thanks to the increased prevalence of informational echo chambers, more of us are finding that our next-door neighbours live in parallel epistemological universes. Of course it is open to different sectors of the public to have different views about the proper role that governments have to play in regulating speech. But we need to find ways to replenish some level of faith – for those who have lost faith – in the possibility of using factual accuracy as a workable regulatory standard for the regulation of speech. It is one thing to have libertarian moral instincts about the role of the government in our lives. It is quite another thing – a potentially very destructive thing – to want to limit the government’s regulatory powers because we’ve come to doubt whether anyone can really say what’s true and false.