Only days after the American left was lamenting the fall of Italy to the alleged fascist Giorgia Meloni, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern told world leaders assembled at the United Nations that unfettered free expression was one of the greatest threats facing humanity. In her speech, cloaked in the same trendy euphemisms popular among American progressives — and probably familiar to the despots and theocrats in attendance — she warned that the internet had been corrupted and weaponized by bad actors who spread mis- and disinformation and hateful ideologies. And the only way we can stop this “weapon of war” is to come together and create a set of “rules and transparency.”
Ardern went on to argue even “light touches” in regulating speech can often be “misinterpreted” as attacks on free expression, which “we value so highly.” Do you, though? Ardern is under the impression that a global regulatory speech code, some “light touch” censorship, is a liberal position.
A person who lobbies world leaders to band together to dictate the contours of appropriate discourse is an authoritarian. And a person who maintains the state should be the “single source of truth,” as Ardern had during the Covid lockdowns, is cartoonishly so. If you value speech only when it comports with your worldview and beliefs, you do not value it at all.
That’s the principled point.
The practical point is that whatever good you think suppressing speech might achieve, sooner or later, every censor in history expands the definition of mis- or disinformation to attack political opponents. One of the ways they do this is by conflating genuine disinformation and hateful rhetoric — which exists in abundance and always will — with legitimate debate. A good example of how this works was on display when American media, big corporations, and the FBI worked together to shut down inconvenient stories about Hunter Biden and “the big guy” to help elect their preferred candidate.
Ardern herself offers an example of how this soft illiberalism has been normalized in the left’s thinking. Allowing unregulated discourse, the prime minister argues, destabilizes “the norms we all value.” For example: “How do you tackle climate change if people don’t believe it exists?”
There should be absolutely zero expectation that your policy positions will be implemented without any debate. In truly free nations, “tackling” climate change is a policy decision that is sorted out in the democratic process. Or not. What level of climate change rhetoric will Ardern require us to believe? Some of us don’t believe the moral and economic tradeoffs of tackling climate change are worth it. Some of us don’t believe there’s any “climate crisis” at all. I’m not sure there are enough internet speech regulations that will convince many of us otherwise. When that reality sets in, “light touch” regulation will evolve into something a little firmer, no doubt.
And, speaking of misinformation, what will the UN’s Ministry of Truth do about the alarmist predictions of Malthusians, who have been unwaveringly wrong about nearly everything for the past 50 years? Nothing, of course.
As we’ve learned during the coronavirus pandemic, and long before, state officials are themselves quite adept at conveying misinformation. The government has no moral authority in dictating the veracity of speech. In this nation, it has a duty not to. And yet the Biden administration had regularly involved itself in what we talk about, using the same rationalizations as Ardern.
Take, for instance, the pressuring of rent-seeking Big Tech companies, which oversee huge swaths of our daily digital interactions. Not that long ago, the White House admitted it was “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” Under what constitutional authority these actions were justified, it did not share. It has been argued that social media companies “should be held accountable” for the ideas people exchange on platforms. Joe Biden previously accused Facebook of “killing people.” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas even tried creating a “Disinformation Governance Board” to combat “misinformation” — run by the right kind of conspiracy theorist. I assume this is what New Zealand’s prime minister, a hero of the international left, had in mind.
“How do you ensure the human rights of others are upheld if they are subjected to hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology?” she asks. Easy. You treat all inalienable liberal “values” — including free expression — as neutral rights.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to believe we have to debate these issues again. Rationalizing state censorship as a means of protecting people from dangerous “misinformation” has been the ruse of every tin-pot authoritarian regime in history. If you still think it’s a good idea, you’re one of the bad guys.