On Thursday the second of May Facebook drew a line in the sand, banning from their platforms people who purvey ideas they deem dangerous. Being purged from Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) are Louis Farrakhan, infamous for his use of anti-Semitic language, inflammatory polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos, far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and others.
However, while detestable views certainly can spread on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, as well as on other social media platforms, the excommunication of those with heterodox views has occurred before. History cautions against lauding the gatekeepers—in this instance, Facebook itself—who respond with censorship.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook—together with Twitter and other social media platforms—has promoted the spread of dangerous ideas in the same way as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press did in Martin Luther’s era. The result now, as then, is a decrease in trust—both between citizens, and between citizens and institutions. But history shows that authorities should not react to this with coercive, top-down, futile and counterproductive restraints.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, criticizing corruption in the Catholic Church, to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, his ideas proliferated and immediately began to undermine public trust in both the Church and the ruling class. Five hundred years before Facebook, “social media” contributed to the Reformation: new media technology, in the form of the movable-type printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century, allowed Luther to rapidly print his polemics, distribute them via social networks throughout Germany, and forever change the political and religious landscape of Europe.
Both the Church and the aristocracy attempted to stop the spread of Luther’s dangerous ideas, which threatened the status quo. To support Luther was to risk your life. Printers were prohibited from publishing or selling literature written by him or any other reformer. The Catholic Church’s infamous Index of Censorship, which prohibited Catholics from reading literature deemed unorthodox, grew out of concern about the rapid spread of Lutheran dissent. Luther used Gutenberg’s printing press to spread ideas of religious reform, which contributed to a decline in institutional trust. Attempts to silence him and censor the spread of his ideas were, however, ineffective.
The Catholic Church attempted to stifle his influence, but could not prevent the Reformation from rapidly taking root throughout Europe. Pamphlet reprints were the retweets and likes of the day—a proxy for popularity—and Luther was the author of a quarter of the 6–7 million copies of pamphlets circulated during the first ten years of the Reformation (mostly written in the vernacular German, making them accessible to the literate laity).
When serfs adopted Luther’s message of equality before God and translated it into political and legal equality (which Luther denounced), the ruling class’s top-down attempts to silence the leaders of the uprising failed to prevent the German Peasants’ War of 1525, which left over 100,000 serfs dead.
Attempts to quell subversive opinions are as ineffectual today as they were half a millennium ago. But there are additional considerations that render our modern situation unique.
Growing criticism of the left-wing bias of prominent social media platforms, whose algorithms and employees control the user experience, reflects the fact that tech companies are both censored and censors. In addition to censoring certain content outright, they exercise tremendous influence over both who is on their platforms and what users see. Mark Zuckerberg, then, is both Gutenberg and Pope Leo X.
To combat the centralized power of Facebook and other platforms that control our public discourse, some have suggested greater transparency. Socialist writer Nathan Robinson, for example, recently argued that the social media giants should adopt Wikipedia’s democratic approach, in which decisions about user experience are made by users themselves. This idea is better than those of legislators in the US and beyond who have called for laws to curb Facebook’s influence. But Wikipedia’s model is impractical because the stakes of their editorial decisions are low: Wikipedia articles don’t influence the fate of elections or the success of media outlets in the way that Facebook’s algorithms can and have.
Both people and algorithms are imperfect—and so are the controversial fact checkers. “Facebook’s newest ‘fact checkers’ are Koch-funded climate deniers,” reads one ThinkProgress headline, describing Facebook’s fact-checking partnership with the Daily Caller, a right-wing news outlet. On the flip side, back in September, ThinkProgress published an essay entitled “Brett Kavanaugh Said He Would Kill Roe v. Wade Last Week and Almost No One Noticed.” When the Weekly Standard, another fact-checking partner, flagged the title as misleading, Facebook decreased the ThinkProgress article’s distribution. (You can imagine the indignation that resulted.) And who could forget the time Facebook accidentally flagged the Declaration of Independence as hate speech. Facebook will never be able to please everyone in its efforts to curb the spread of dangerous ideas.
Since we are connected to a global audience, and share over a billion Facebook posts, blog updates and tweets each day, in one sense we are freer to speak than ever before. In another, however, the press freedom central to our democratic republic is weakening. This is serious because the ability to openly criticize and question is an important check on how authorities—both in the Reformation era and today—exercise power, and therefore an important defense against injustice.
Thomas Jefferson once proposed that editors divide and expressly label news in four categories: truth, probability, possibility and lies. “The third and fourth,” he said, “should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.” Jefferson’s point is sound. There will always be people who want to be misled, and there will always be technological changes to satisfy that desire—created by Gutenberg yesterday, Zuckerberg today and another innovator tomorrow. The question is not whether the views of Farrakhan, Yiannopoulos and Jones are objectively abhorrent—of course they are. However, we have a problem when authorities begin to descend the slippery slope that begins with monitoring permissible speech and suppressing the impermissible.
The analogy between Zuckerberg and Gutenberg is imperfect—for example, it does not address important data privacy concerns—but the crucial question is how citizens can be inspired to forgo willful self-deception in favor of spirited, good-faith debate aimed at the pursuit of truth. That is something censorship—by tech companies, churches or political authorities—never has and never will be able to address.