Sorry Maria Ressa, censoring speech won’t save democracy
The journalist suggested that we can only protect freedom by constraining it
Maria Ressa is a brave woman. Best known for her campaigning journalism against Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian government in her native Philippines, she has defied arrest and the threat of a long prison sentence. In 2021 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
Her recent comments on the limits of free speech — for instance, in this interview with Stephen Colbert — therefore matter. The context is the blame she attaches to social media for Duterte’s rise to power. Generalising from the Philippines to other countries, including America, she argues that social media has “come in and used free speech to stifle free speech.” This was met with warm applause from Colbert’s audience of liberal Americans.
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The implication, whether Ressa intended it or not, is that we can only protect freedom by constraining it. Up to a point, this contradiction makes perfect sense. Our fundamental liberties, including the right to free expression, are not absolute — hence our longstanding laws against slander, fraud and incitement to violence. What’s new, however, is the elite push to take the regulation of speech well beyond such limits.
Ironically, given Ressa’s criticism of Facebook, it is the big social media companies that have led the way — for instance, by de-platforming Donald Trump. Governments are getting in on the act too. Earlier this year the Biden administration tried to set up a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security. The initiative ended in farce, but the impulse to protect democracy by censoring free speech hasn’t gone away.
It can hardly be denied that the internet is a sewer of lies. And that, argues Ressa, is a threat to democracy because “if you don’t have facts you can’t have truth” and that “without truth you can’t have trust”. Consequently, there is “no shared reality, we can’t solve any problems, we have no democracy.”
On the face of it, this is a reasonable analysis — logical, even. Indeed, the causal progression from facts to truth to trust suggests a general solution: the regulation of facts. Furthermore, the focus on social media suggests a specific method: change the algorithm to filter out the lies, and the rest will follow.
Except that people have genuine disagreements about the facts. Can a man become a woman? Is Critical Race Theory essentially correct? How effective are masks at preventing infection? Did the Covid pandemic start in a lab? Is social media to blame for the global decline of democracy? To put it mildly, these are contested matters, which we cannot expect an algorithm or a governance board to settle.
Ressa’s logic is back-to-front. Rather than democracy being dependent on a “shared reality”, democracy is what allows people to make a free choice between competing views of reality. A truly liberal society is one that can accommodate fundamentally different assumptions about morals, religion, history, economics and even science without falling apart.
By definition, what allows us to agree to disagree is not a single set of accepted facts — but a tradition of tolerance for differing viewpoints. One could argue that this is itself a shared reality, but, if so, what is being shared is not facts, but values — and, in particular, the value of pluralism. We undermine it at our peril.
Great article. I’ve rarely read such a succinct and profound defense of free speech and how free societies should function. The moment one allows an elected board, a governmental committee, a ministry of truth, or a computer algorithm to decide what is ‘true’ and what constitutes a ‘fact’, one is also necessarily negating an individual’s right to decide for himself or herself what is ‘true’ and what is ‘fact’. One cannot simultaneously hold that individuals both should and should not be able to interpret reality in their own way. More pointedly, democracy is a process, not a result. Democracy is allowing people, through elected representatives, referenda, and the free exchange of ideas to arrive at their own ‘truth’. Will the outcome of such a system be positive. Obviously it will not, but one is hard pressed to find a better alternative in all of human history. Handing that same power to determine what is ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ to kings, priests, or bureaucrats has not yielded better results, at least not from the standpoint of the people being ruled. If one predetermines the ends as desirable or undesirable without regard to the popular will, one is no better than any scepter wielding tyrant. We live in sad times when people, especially the sort that call themselves ‘liberal’, have so little faith in individuals to make their own decisions, so little tolerance for differing viewpoints, and so little respect for the democratic values and process that underpin their lifestyles and freedom.
The Golden Rule helps. Who cares how old it is? Let’s conserve the good stuff while being open to discussion in pursuit of truth. If you don’t believe in Truth you will find you cannot trust other people. This is not a recipe for the pursuit of happiness.
Your comment is an excellent addition to the article. The key term in all of this is “pluralism”. Unherd has become one of the very few media outlets (that i know of) where differences of ideas and opinions can be put forward with respect for each other’s right to do so. The only criteria are being able to represent a point of view with a degree of intelligence, and if leavened with wit so much the better!
This should be the standard for all democratic discourse. It used to be, which is why the current cancer of what is now termed “liberalism” (an Orwellian inversion if ever there was one) must be challenged at every turn.
Well stated. I think one of the problems with social media is that everyone is shown a different set of facts based on their “profile” via the complex algorithms. Another problem is that too many people try to argue with uninformed opinions. If you believe, for example, that you can change earth’s climate by using paper straws or an LED bulb, you are certainly entitled to that opinion. But don’t proclaim it is gospel truth.
It’s asinine that we allow these pseudo intellectuals to call for censorship without having to explain how the censors could be restrained from abusing their power – an even greater threat to democratic decision making. If you made such simplistic arguments in an undergraduate paper, without even addressing the basic and obvious objections, you would quite rightly get an F. At least when I went to school. Yet these clowns carry on in their eco-chambers, congratulating themselves on their intellectual superiority. And can’t you make the same ridiculous arguments about all of our rights? Legal due process is abused by criminals therefore we should get rid of it. All rights are abused by some, at some point.
Indeed, the legal due process that protects accused men innocent of rape also hampers the conviction of men guilty of rape. A certain type of feminist would wish to dismantle the protections that help the innocent on the grounds that punishing the guilty men is more important. Abolishing the “abuse” of the protections is more important than the protection of the innocent in their eyes, perhaps because they believe “all men are rapists” so does it really matter if in any particular instance a man might actually be innocent.
We have to allow ridiculous conspiracy theories to circulate because the alternative is supporting the official lie.
And if anyone really needs evidence that the ability to censor is abused, here’s a chilling example. Last night in Toronto the prestigious Munk debates were held. The topic was whether the main stream media could be trusted. Douglas Murray and Matt Taibbi versus Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg. Going in, the audience were evenly split. The results were overwhelming – the largest change in the audience in any Munk debate ever with a 39% gain for Murray and Taibbi. Today, not a single main stream media outlet even reported it. Could you ask for a better illustration of the total corruption of the media? Democracy dies in darkness they cry, as they turn out all the lights.
Yes, sad & disappointing the debate had no MSM coverage. A pity too it’s now behind a paywall. For the interested, the link: > https://munkdebates.com/debates/mainstream-media
Free speech is messy. Controlled speech is dystopian. Take your pick.
Interestingly, there is an excellent Reith Lecture (BBC) on free speech. It is a really good talk by Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie (available on BBC iPlayer). ‘The Guardian’ ( ! ) also covered this and quotes from the talk: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/nov/28/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-bbc-reith-lecture-freedom-truth-trans-rights
I read the article that you linked to. The difference between the two women was stark, the interviewer has clearly swallowed the whole “progressive” agenda but she was finding it hard to challenge her interviewee. It often seems that when “progressives” comes up against an articulate person, who is generally on the left but doesn’t subscribe to all their strange theories, they come a cropper. and when that person is a respected black liberal it becomes even more of a problem for them. I shall have to listen to her lecture.
Good points Linda. Zoe Williams was a bit disappointing.
Hmmmmm…….a brave woman eh? A campaigning journalist against Duterte the “authoritarian”; background at CNN Asia; and a Nobel (Noble in Whitehouse speak) peace prize winner. In other words a typical MSM puppeteer, fed by the unbelievably wealthy Philippines oligarchy.
Of course she doesn’t want the coarse voices of that country’s vast underclass to be heard! The voices which were solidly behind Duterte, and now Marcos jnr. (Street level justice is never pretty, but it became very necessary). Neither man is the sort of pliant puppet president which the oligarchs have managed to install since deposing Marcos snr.
Today’s facts are yesterday’s conspiracy theories.
A good article. But I have occasion to listen to many conversations among millennials and I’m afraid none of these liberal values will survive their coming to power.
Isn’t this a strawman argument? You gravitated on censorship when that is not even her point. It’s not much that she dislikes other forms of speech. Her position is more about how technology is used by nefarious entities to upend the distribution of information because technology is now the main trunk where information is disseminated. When technology only prefers post and conversation that are only graded and elevated by how much engagement they generate, it is prone to abuse because technology doesn’t care much about fact and fiction. Such abuse is what she is seeking to mitigate, not to censor free speech. Artificially magnified point of view, most specially when the magnification is triggered by lies laced with anger and hate, is something that everyone of us can agree is bad (hopefully).
And yes, her generalization that what is happening in her seemingly inconsequential tiny country is a cause of concern for the rest of the world. You can ask Christopher Wylie about it.
And lastly, what kind of world we are to create if we are prodded by technology to show the worst of us just to be heard?
Back to front – and they can’t even see it anymore. Just started reading Joseph Conrads The Rover and the woke Napoleonic Revolutionary era fervour for testing “citoyens” credentials and probing for thought crimes is deja vu all over again.
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