A poll from Pew Research Center released last week shows that a majority of Americans don’t value free speech as a fundamental right. When asked whether the government should restrict free speech online as a means of curbing misinformation, 55 percent of Americans said it should. Even worse, 65 percent of Americans believe tech companies should censor misinformation — as though the unelected oligarchs in Silicon Valley are more trustworthy than the elected oligarchs in Washington, D.C.
As one might expect, there was a stark difference in responses when they were broken down by political affiliation. Whereas 39 percent of Republicans approved of restricting online speech, 70 percent of Democrats supported the idea, contradicting the “liberal” label that Democrat supporters often use to describe themselves. Writer and journalist Alex Berenson dolefully concluded, “The left — the entire left, readers and writers, consumers and producers of information — is clearly losing confidence in the First Amendment, telling itself a tale of the dangers of too much speech, and trying to wall off opinions and even facts it does not like.”
It wasn’t always this way. Only five years ago, 40 percent of Democrat-leaning respondents approved of restricting free speech online, on par with 37 percent of Republican-leaning respondents. Something happened in society that swayed a significant portion of leftist Americans to flip their position on free speech.
Overdrive Campaign Against ‘Misinformation’
It’s no mystery what this event was: the catastrophic response to Covid-19. Even though the mass campaigns against misinformation started happening after Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, the pandemic was when the quest to root out misinformation went into hyperdrive. At that time, news media started to warn that misinformation was resulting in hundreds of deaths. This meant that anyone, even esteemed scholars, who questioned the merits of social distancing, lockdowns, two-week quarantines, mRNA vaccines, or wearing face masks effectively put unsuspecting audiences at risk of dying from Covid-19. If there were ever a time to deny American citizens their right to free speech, this was it.
Only three years later has it become more apparent that the experts were wrong in nearly every major aspect of the pandemic. It turns out that silencing dissent mostly exacerbated the effects of Covid-19, discouraging the use of effective therapeutics, setting students years behind in their education, stoking political tensions, and wrecking the economy. Had people been able to share their ideas freely, it’s possible that Americans would have come out of the virus with far less devastation.
Piercing the Leftist Bubble
Yet many still believe in the merits of censorship. In the post-Covid era, some people have become conditioned to depend on who they see as authorities, despite those authorities being horribly wrong again and again. They trust these voices more than their families, their peers, and even themselves. They won’t even consider the possibility of listening to anyone else or thinking for themselves — after all, the experts have told them that doing so might kill them. As writer and professor Paul Gottfried explains in a recent article, reaching these audiences trapped in the leftist media bubble is close to impossible.
As for why such dependence is more characteristic of leftists than conservatives, much of it has to do with their personal situation. Which is more likely to trust in the experts at all costs: the single adult with a useless college degree who is underemployed, friendless, and in poor health, or the married adult who is gainfully employed, enjoys a rich community of friends and family, and lives a healthy life? Which will be soothed by the dulcet tones of NPR radio hosts and feel intellectually validated by the acclaimed hacks at The New York Times? Who will want to be left alone to learn for themselves and live by their own principles even if it’s unpopular?
To make matters worse, the pandemic response resulted in even more alienated, lonely people who are vulnerable to propaganda.
I experienced this firsthand with one of my best friends. He decided to end his friendship with me because he believed my views were not just misguided, but dangerous. Although it hurt at the time, I was able to eventually move on because I have plenty of other friends who appreciate me. As for him, he dumped the only friend he had and grew all the more insular and ideologically radical. If you asked him if I should be silenced for perpetuating misinformation, I have no doubt he would think so and that I should probably be legally punished for the untold damage I’ve caused with all my nonexpert opinions.
It’s easy to imagine there are many more such people in the country who think this way. Not only are they told by their favorite pundits that conservatives, particularly the “MAGA conservatives,” pose an existential threat to the country, but they also have no one in their lives to give them a reality check.
Thus, it will take more than good arguments and appeals to the Constitution to preserve the right of free speech. It will take strong relationships and communities that can help Americans cultivate self-reliance and recognize the necessity of free speech as well as ward off the constant lies of leftist propaganda. Without that foundation, it’s so much more tempting to succumb to the self-proclaimed authorities and demonize dissenters who speak inconvenient truths.