Many people are now noticing the harmful effects social media can have. These may range from social isolation, anxiety, depression and distortion of body image, to widespread mistrust and violence. This article proposes a general framework that may serve as basis for truly free speech and a “good life”.
One of most widely used arguments by social media companies for not limiting their content is that they
re just platforms and, as a consequence, people may use them as they wish and, if there are people with bad intentions in the world, thats not social media’s fault as they are just exposing something that already existed. Although this argument may sound robust, a more in-depth analysis shows that it is contradictory in itself so it is not a valid argument. Allow me to expand on why this argument is not valid and why the speech is all but free.
Firstly, social media do control content. They control it so much that every time one goes on a social media platform, one`s movements, clicks, and scrolls are being registered and inserted in an algorithm that will provide “personalized” recommendations. By selecting the content one sees, more and more one is dragged into a personal “bubble” with a distorted view of the world. Maybe this is better explained with an example. If one goes on Facebook® and looks for “natural” or “organic” foods, it is likely that the algorithm recommends certain “groups”, amongst these groups there might be an anti-vaccine group. This has been eloquently described in an article by Johnson NF and colleagues “The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views” (Nature 2020), showing that anti-vaccination clusters (although smaller in size than pro-vaccination ones) spread much faster and intertwine with undecided clusters much more efficiently. The authors predict that, if nothing is done, these anti-vaccine views will be dominant within a decade. This would be a major setback for mankind, as vaccines (along with potable water, plumbing, and antibiotics), are one of the greatest discoveries responsible for human health and longevity, and could eradicate diseases such as smallpox or poliomyelitis that would otherwise kill or disable millions of people worldwide. The scientific evidence supporting the widespread use of vaccines is so robust that denying it should have legal consequences, because for each person that is not vaccinated the more likely is the disease to spread until a point where the herd immunity may be lost, with prejudice to all. The same principle may be applied to climate change, for example. Hence, spreading misinformation online is not free speech, it is captive speech. It is an insult to the scientific community and, more importantly, it is harmful. Therefore, misinformation about basic scientific facts should not be allowed to be shared online.
We proposed solutions for the spread of misinformation in Ferreira JP and colleagues “The Decline of the Experimental Paradigm During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Template for the Future” (Am J Med 2020), including an easy-to-implement colour grading system to classify scientific evidence online:
Secondly, online communication can be limited, not allowing for the full expression of the human capacities. A text message with a few characters can be useful for simple communication between people that already know each other. For example, “Do we meet at 4.30?” or “I arrived well, thank you very much! Talk soon”. Text messaging between millions of strangers is set to cause chaos. Humans evolved in small groups with close connections, allowing cooperation and the sharing of emotions. Many argue that we have selected ourselves to be kind to each other in order to cooperate more effectively; that is why our faces allow the expression of a wide range of emotions enhancing comprehension and empathy, only possible in close human contact (see: Bregman R. Humankind: A Hopeful History 2020). Online text communication breaks this unique human feature, and the message is prone to be incomplete and misinterpreted, triggering our worst emotions of irritation, disagreement and anger. If we act upon these emotions, the poorest and more incendiary messages spread much faster than the thoughtful and gentle ones. Again, this is not free speech, it is a caged speech captive of our limitations and worst emotions. It does not contribute to the common good. To counteract this limitation of human capacity, certain “nudges” could be promptly and easily adopted. For example, platforms could detect if there`s offensive language and pause the message for one or two minutes, asking the sender “Are you sure you want to send this message?” or “Instead of sending this message, we would suggest calling or start a video chat with this person (or group of people)?” or even “We have detected aggressive language in your text, instead of sending it we would suggest calling or start a video chat with this person (or group of people), we provide these features in our app either by phone or video; please note that communication is much improved with both sound and video”. This would be much closer to free speech, with all of the best human capacities.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly: don’t we all aim for a “good life”? Isn’t this our shared reality i.e., a good life with health, food, shelter, love and friendship? To make this point clearer, one has to go back to Aristotle. Aristotle divided goods in 1) limited goods, such as the bodily goods (e.g., health and vitality) and the external goods (e.g., food, water, and shelter), and 2) unlimited goods or the goods of the soul (e.g., love, friendship, knowledge, honour, and aesthetic enjoyment). Without both 1) and 2) one cannot have a good life. However, to know how to achieve a good life, one needs a good moral character that can be worked over by developing good habits (Aristotle also called these “virtues” or “excellences”). Aren’t we fully dependent on a good moral character and good habits to achieve a good life? This is so true even for the basic functioning of democratic societies. Imagine living in a society where permanent insults and offenses to one`s integrity and honour were allowed and more, imagine that these behaviours were reinforced. Well, you have this in many of the current online platforms. It does not work and it ruins the core of our societies. It is not free, it is captive.