Category Archives: Free Speech

Fighting Bias and Misinformation, from Pierre Bayle’s 17th Century to the Social Media Age

Many people insist that media bias and misinformation are getting worse in the social media age, and we need to do something about it. Depending on whether one leans Democratic or Republican, tech companies are either not doing enough to stop right-wing misinformation from spreading, or are censoring legitimate conservative content. Some conservatives feel so aggrieved they are even pushing to revive the fairness doctrine, which they used to oppose.

Bias and misinformation are impossible to measure, which puts a rather obvious damper on peoples’ certainty about them. Ironically, this is at least partially because of the human brain’s built-in biases, such as recency bias, availability bias, and pessimistic bias. In fact, media bias and misinformation are nothing new, and have likely gotten neither better nor worse over time.

These problems have been around so long that the 17th century philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote in an issue of his 1680s periodical Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters):

“History is dished up very much like meat. Each nation and religion takes the same raw facts and dresses them in a sauce of its own taste, and each reader finds them true or false according to whether they agree or disagree with his prejudices.”

More than 300 years later, this holds up well. And it’s not just with history. People also put their own tastes on current events. Different people take identical facts and prepare them differently, usually in line with whatever their ideological priors are.

Just being aware that everyone does this can go a long way toward minimizing the harmful effects of bias and misinformation. Beyond awareness, there are also many simple, low-effort actions one can take, some of which Bayle might endorse if he were alive today:

  • Avoid cable news channels. They do not inform people, so much as get them riled up. People who feel outraged click on more articles, keep the TV on, and generate more ad revenue. Outlets encourage this by framing news stories as us-vs.-them struggles first, and only secondarily by presenting information. These are two very different things! Learn to tell them apart. If you find yourself getting outraged over something a personality figure from the other political party said, or about the culture war story of the day, that’s usually a good sign that you’re getting riled up rather than informed. There are better uses for your time, and for your blood pressure.
  • Purge low-quality sources from your social media feeds (or abstain entirely). Use those mute and block buttons on people who post low-quality content that does not add value to your feed. That’s your space, and you can curate it however you want. If someone’s posts are mostly outrage stories, your social media feed will likely be both more enjoyable and more informative if they are not part of it. Spend some real-life time with that person instead, which will likely elicit better social etiquette. People are more considerate of others when they are face to face rather than venting their spleen, alone, into a keyboard.
  • Put a little effort into statistical literacy, and be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true stories that appeal to your ideological priors. Arming yourself with the right tools is as easy as picking up a layman-friendly book or two. Financial Times columnist and BBC presenter (and friend of CEI) Tim Harford’s latest book, The Data Detective, is an excellent guide that is also a delight to read. I also recommend Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed earlier on this blog. Jonathan Rauch’s new book The Constitution of Knowledge has a lot wisdom, which he also shared earlier this year at a CEI online event. My colleague Iain Murray strongly recommends his old boss’ book, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality. Reading a chapter a day from any of these books is a far better use of 30 minutes than getting outraged over Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow’s latest rant.
  • Keep an eye on the longer arcs of history, not just today’s ephemeraElizabeth Nolan Brown’s recent Reason article “40 Ways Things Are Getting Better” is one example of journalism that gets this. There are plenty of reasons for short-term pessimism; that keep groups like CEI busy. But there is also a strong case for long-run optimism. Both can simultaneously be true, as CEI founder Fred Smith captured in his “Despairing Optimist” letters. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and his new book How Innovation Works, for which he also did a CEI event, are immensely helpful for seeing the big picture.

Notice that none of these strategies involve government regulating political speech. They are all ideas that you and I can implement right now; change begins at home. Ultimately, individuals hold power over bias and misinformation, not the other way around. We should learn to use that power wisely, and not delegate it away to Washington, where it will get politicized and misused. It takes some effort, which is why many people don’t bother. But the payoff is worth it.

Pierre Bayle had a good sense of this dynamic. He was an important bridge figure between the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—which means he helped to inspire modernity as we know it. He emphasized the virtues of tolerance and skepticism by individuals, in part because he was forced into exile from his native France over his religious beliefs. He settled in the more tolerant Netherlands, where he produced works in astronomy, philosophy, religion, literature, and even produced the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), an early encyclopedia that predated Denis Diderot’s more famous 1751 Encyclopédie by 60 years. France’s outrage-induced loss was the Netherlands’ gain, and ours.

We live in better times. But the lessons Bayle took from his day’s outrage culture are still useful in dealing with today’s excesses. Times change, but people are people, wherever you go. That is mostly to the good—though as we see in the news and on social media, not entirely. There is always reason for optimism, if we know how to look for and act on it.

Facebook’s Content Moderation Decisions Preferable to One-Size-Fits-All Government Regulation

This news release was originally posted on cei.org.

Facebook announced today it suspended former President Donald Trump from the platform for two years retroactive to January 7, 2021. Responding to a ruling against the former president’s indefinite suspension from its own Oversight Board, the social network also laid out policies for how it would treat content moderation of posts by public officials.

Director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin said:

“People who value freedom of speech should be encouraged a private entity like Facebook is attempting to deal with thorny issues about what is and is not permissible speech on their own, without heavy-handed and rigid government regulation. Facebook is under pressure from both sides of the ideological spectrum to enact very different policies toward content moderation and are faced with novel challenges presented by the billions of user-generated post shared on their platform daily. No decision will make everyone happy.

“While it is curious Facebook chose to respond to the Oversight Board’s decision five months early, dealing with these issues without government coercion will allow Facebook to institute policies in line with its own values while not imposing their own content moderation standards on other platforms, as would happen with a one-size-fits-all federal regulatory approach.

“The former president might be suspended from Facebook for two years, but that is not the same as being ‘censored’ or ‘silenced.’ He is still free to make public statements, appear on television and radio, hold rallies, or join other social networks. The government compelling Facebook to carry speech with which it disagrees would be the real threat to free speech.

“Facebook has every right to curate their product as they choose, just as consumers have every right to use a different social media platform with content moderation and community standards more in line with their own.”

CEI senior fellow Ryan Young said:

“What is the right way to deal with malicious, incendiary, or fake content? Nobody knows—and that’s the point. Facebook doesn’t know. President Trump doesn’t know. Nor do Republicans and Democrats in Congress. We are in the middle of a discovery process right now. Maybe Facebook made the right call to ban President Trump from its platforms for two years after his remarks about the January 6 Capitol riots. Maybe they didn’t. Not only does nobody have the correct answer, there likely isn’t a single correct answer.

“What we need is an ongoing process of trial and error, where individuals and companies discover which norms, institutions, and policies will help to slow the spread of misinformation on social media while giving people space to express themselves. Washington is not the place to look to for leadership here. People are already coming up with multiple competing approaches to content moderation. As people try them out, tinker with them, discard them, or improve them, the results will be far better than whatever uniform, politically motivated policy Congress would write down in stone.”

Next week, CEI is holding a book forum for Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” Join us on Wednesday, June 9 at 12:00pm ET. RSVP here.

Partisan Reasoning and Evolution

From p. 32 of Jonathan Rauch’s forthcoming book The Constitution of Knowledge:

Think of it this way: humans are equipped with some of evolution’s finest mental circuitry to protect us from changing our minds when doing so might alienate us from our group. We have hundreds of thousands of years of practice at believeing whatever will keep us in good standing with our tribe, even if that requires denying, discounting, rationalizing, misperceiving, and ignoring the evidence in front of our nose.

This explains much of modern politics, and is one reason I highly recommend avoiding cable news. Some of the talking heads’ performance routines are impressive. But they are seeking peer approval, not truth or understanding.

CEI is hosting Rauch for a book forum on June 9. You can register here.

John McWhorter – Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

John McWhorter – Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

I listened to the audio version, which McWhorter narrated himself. It is at once casual, funny, factual, and led me to a number of useful and fun intellectual tangents. We all know language changes over time. To people my age (born early 1980s), it sounds odd when older people pronounce “diabetes” as “diabeetus” or “horrible” as “hahr-ibble.” At the same time, many younger people pronounce words like “bit” and “bet” and “dawn” and “Don” in rhyme. Even well-defined regional accents change over time—the classic, often-mocked Brooklyn accent of pronouncing “work” as “woik” is mostly gone now.

Text messages and Twitter are part of a whole other linguistic evolution. McWhorter argues that their innovations have a common purpose of conveying ease and informality. To describe it more fully, he uses the acronym FACE for Factuality, Acknowledgment, Counterexpectation, and Easing. Language doesn’t just communicate information, it communicates social dynamics. All the “LOLs” and emojis in text messages closely imitate in-person spoken language—listen to the cadence, not the words, of any normal spoken conversation and the amount of laughter you will hear is absurd. This is important for texting—you can’t see or hear your correspondent, so verbalizing nonverbal language with LOLs and emojis is a way of compensating for it.

McWhorter doesn’t make this connection, but the overall trend of this evolution ties into Steven Pinker’s point in Better Angels of Our Nature about decreasing violence over time. A reason people today are less formal and more at ease with each other than previous generations is because the threat of violence is low; unlike in, say, medieval times or even the mid-20th century, a social gaffe or lack of proper deference is unlikely to result in bodily harm. People today are more relaxed in dress, speech, and culture because they an be.

Finally, today’s use of “like” as a near-constant verbal tic and “literally” to mean “figuratively” can be annoying, but they also have precedents going back a long way. Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the word “bully,” for example, was that era’s equivalent of having a president who says “dude” a lot. Language changes over time. It happens, and it cannot be stopped.

Linguistic change is also an example of spontaneous order in action—a Hayekian angle that also ties into Adam Smith’s famous essay on the origins of language, which could have been another useful avenue for McWhorter to stroll down.

One can infer from the length of this ewview that McWhorter provides a lot of fodder for thought beyond language, ranging from culture to evolution to psychology. I also recommend the audio version over the print edition.

Deirdre McCloskey on Free Speech

As with everything Deirdre does, this short video about free speech will make you see the world a little differently. Well worth three minutes of your time. Click here if the embed below doesn’t work.

Kudos to Cato

The best way to rebut speech you disagree is with speech of your own. In Washington, a more common tactic is simple intimidation. Cato president John Allison’s response when faced with just that is a thing of beauty. Quoted in full, here is his letter to a man seemingly incapable of disagreeing agreeably:

Dear Senator Durbin:

Your letter of August 6, 2013 is an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals who may have been involved in any way with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

While Cato is not intimidated because we are a think tank—whose express mission is to speak publicly to influence the climate of ideas—from my experience as a private-sector CEO, I know that business leaders will now hesitate to exercise their constitutional rights for fear of regulatory retribution.

Your letter thus represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a continuation of the trend of the current administration and congressional leaders, such as yourself, to menace those who do not share your political beliefs—as evidenced by the multiple IRS abuses that have recently been exposed.

Your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion.

We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes.

Sincerely,

John Allison

Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro, who has tussled with Sen. Durbin on free speech issues before, has more.

Well Done, Minnesota

Looks like Minnesotans can learn online, after all. A little bad publicity really can go a long way.

(via Katherine Mangu-Ward)

Regulation of the Day 229: Educating Yourself


We live in a golden age of information. These days, anybody who wants to can get a college-level education without ever setting foot on a college campus. An outfit called the Teaching Company doesn’t confer degrees, but it does sell undergraduate-level lecture courses in history, philosophy, literature, the arts, the sciences, and more.

Of course, they charge money. Other outfits don’t. Coursera is a new company that has already attracted nearly 1.7 million customers. You can take online courses for free in almost any subject from medicine to economics to electrical engineering. The lectures are taped at top universities such as Columbia, Vanderbilt, Stanford, and more. You can even take an introductory class in guitar from the Berklee College of Music. Now you don’t need to rack up intimidating levels of debt to learn from the best professors at the world’s best universities.

Minnesota’s Solons would prefer that their state’s residents miss out on this golden age. State law bans unauthorized college courses from the state. Of course, this can’t really be done in the Internet age. Coursera should have pointed out how absurd this law is. Protecting people from free and abundant knowledge is not exactly doing them a service. There’s no force or fraud here, and Coursera does not even confer degrees. Despite all this, Coursera decided to take the appeasement route by posting the following notice:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

Fortunately, not everyone is a regulatory Neville Chamberlain. George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok, along with his colleague Tyler Cowen, have just started up their own online university, MRUniversity. The name comes from their blog, Marginal Revolution (though I do sometimes pronounce it “Mr. University” in my head). Tabarrok, channeling his inner Churchill, posted this:

Tyler and I wish to be perfectly clear: unlike Coursera, we will not shut down MRU to the residents of Minnesota. We are prepared to defend our rights under the First Amendment to teach the good people of Minnesota all about the Solow Model, water policy in Africa, and the economics of garlic–even if we have to do so from a Minnesota jail!

Should it come to that, it would take mere seconds to decide the court case on the merits. Maybe the Institute for Justice, with its long track record of free speech litigation, can weigh in. With all the bad publicity this story is getting, maybe the mere threat of a lawsuit would cause Minnesota’s resident Savonarolas to back down.

At the risk of making this post illegal to read in Minnesota, I close by encouraging readers interested in free speech to read John Milton’s essay “Areopagitica.” It is one of the most stirring, passionate and eloquent defenses of free expression ever put to paper. The full text is even online for free, courtesy of Dartmouth University.

CEI Podcast for October 18, 2012: The Limits of Free Speech


Have a listen here.

Free speech is a core value in any free society. But what are its limits? Senior Attorney Hans Bader discusses a UN resolution to ban anti-religious speech and a court case involving a professor who sent anti-immigration emails. The best remedy for hateful speech, he argues, is not to silence it with laws and courts. It is to rebut it with speech of one’s own.

Should the Government Track Your Political Activity?

Former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith asks an important question in this short video. Click here if the embed doesn’t work.