See your quarrel brought to the point
Of grievous war.… There’s more
If I am sure you want it: I can send out
Rumors to stir the border towns to war,
Fire them with lust for the madness of war,
So they’ll be joining in from everywhere.
I’ll scatter weapons up and down the land.
—The Fury Alecto, in Virgil’s Aeneid 7.747–54
In early January 2015, two French-born Islamist terrorists attacked the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve and injuring eleven others. Over the next two days, another terrorist killed a policewoman and wounded other officers before entering a kosher supermarket, shooting customers, and taking and eventually killing four hostages. Before being gunned down by police, the attackers killed seventeen people in all, wounding twenty-one others, several critically.
Later that same month, three million people marched through Paris in a show of unity against terrorist violence. Many brandished signs bearing the slogan “Je Suis Charlie,” which was generally understood to mean not just solidarity with the murdered editors and artists but also support for free speech as an absolute, uncompromising principle by which every form of expression, from satire to protest, obscenity to blasphemy, is acceptable, even admirable.
The “Je Suis Charlie” marchers would not like to hear this, but their view of free speech is similar to that of libertarian-minded Americans who denounce mask wearing and social distancing as infringements on their sacred liberties. Both groups place free expression above all other considerations. The only difference is that the Americans uphold the freedom to spray respiratory droplets into the faces of others, while the Paris marchers upheld the freedom to publish cartoons of Muhammad as a fat, ugly lecher with a permanent erection having doggy-style sex with a fat, ugly version of the Coptic slave Maria al-Qibtiyya—or, in the case of one Charlie Hebdo cover, a depiction of Christ gleefully sodomizing God the Father while being anally penetrated by the Holy Spirit.
It might be objected that spreading a deadly virus is a genuine harm, while offending other people’s religious sensibilities is not. This makes sense, perhaps, in the context of Charlie Hebdo as a limited-circulation print publication. But Charlie Hebdo is also online, and for every bloody-minded terrorist there are hundreds of ordinary Muslims, Christians, and Jews who feel insulted and demeaned by its blasphemous obscenities. To these people the standard Western response is Get over it. Putting up with views we find abhorrent is the price we pay for free speech.
But what about non-religious sensibilities? Here we encounter a very different Western response: You can’t say that. You’re canceled. No longer confined to the campus, this cancel culture is also online, mirroring the hyped-up giving of offense by Charlie Hebdo with a hyped-up taking of offense. For example, last June a group of students at the University of California–Los Angeles found genuine harm in a professor reading aloud from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
The offense? That 6,900-word letter, addressed to eight white Birmingham, Alabama, ministers who had denounced as “unwise” and “untimely” the nonviolent protests by King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), contains two occurrences of the “n-word.” The first is in a list of insults, humiliations, and acts of violence visited upon blacks in the segregated South; the second in a passage praising the white Southerners who joined the SCLC and got thrown into “filthy, roach infested jails,” where they suffered “the abuse and brutality of policemen who view[ed] them as ‘dirty nigger-lovers.’” The letter’s tone and language are carefully modulated to show no fear, no disrespect, and (most important) no doubt about the wisdom and timeliness of the protesters’ nonviolent actions. Today, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is considered a literary masterpiece, for reasons that surely include the author’s calculated dropping of those two n-bombs.11xThe way things are going, universities may soon ban all of King’s writings, because in addition to using the lower-case “n-word” occasionally, he used the upper-case one, Negro, every day of his life. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. According to Lexico, an online collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press, Negro “now seems out of date or even offensive in both British and US English” (https://www.lexico.com/definition/negro).
None of this mattered to the UCLA students, who I suspect did not take time out of their busy schedules to actually read King’s letter. Here are some of their tweets, followed by a university administrator’s reply:
Student: This is absolutely ridiculous and disgusting. He [the professor] needs to be fired immediately.
Student: This is DISGUSTING!!!! @UCLA DO BETTER. FIRE HIM. WHAT INSTITUTION ALLOWS THIS????
Student: this is DISGUSTING!!! his response?! How is he a professor?!!?!!!??? Ugh
Student: This is why Black students hate it here!
Student: Were other students DEFENDING HIM???
Student: Sadly, they were.
Administrator: Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This information has been shared with UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for review.22xheav. (@heavynne_), “@UCLA After numerous students plead…,” Twitter, June 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/heavynne_/status/1267971350074757122.
The university’s reply begins with a velvet glove for the students (“Thank you”) and ends with an iron fist for the professor (“review”). UCLA has divulged no details, but in keeping with the cancel culture, it appears to be conducting that review behind closed doors with no provision for the accused to have a proper defense. In a complaint filed with the University of California general counsel, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned that “UCLA’s silence on whether it is investigating [the professor], when all outward indications are that it is doing so, will…have an unacceptable chilling effect on the academic freedom and freedom of expression rights of its students and faculty.”33x“University of California, Los Angeles: Lecturer Referred to Administration after Reading Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter Containing Racial Slur,” The Fire (blog), accessed August 4, 2020, https://www.thefire.org/cases/university-of-california-los-angeles-lecturer-referred-to-administration-after-reading-martin-luther-king-jr-letter-containing-racial-slur/.
We thus arrive at a troubling impasse. At one extreme, the champions of free speech embrace the ultralibertarian view that every limit on expression, no matter how benign, is a fatal step toward tyranny. At the other, the custodians of public virtue deploy star-chamber methods to enforce an ideology, congealed from political correctness, that grows ever more invasive, intolerant, and inhuman. Both extremes have forgotten that every society in history has limited speech in some way, yet some have remained freer than others. To refresh their memories, I offer here a list of five time-honored modes of limiting speech:
First, illegitimate coercion by an authoritarian state that arbitrarily and without due process harasses, attacks, imprisons, or executes those who criticize, dissent, or otherwise deviate from the official version of the truth.
Second, self-censorship practiced by the subjects of such an authoritarian state, living under the constant shadow and threat of illegitimate coercion.
Third, legitimate coercion by a democratic government that respects the rule of law and the rights of its citizens.
Fourth, self-regulation practiced by private institutions and organizations in a democratic regime, to comply with the law and, on occasion, to keep the government at bay.
Fifth, voluntary restraint practiced by individuals and communities that in the absence of government pressure are free to shape and enforce their own speech norms.
To the extent that the American tradition of free speech remains strong, it is because the first and second modes have been rejected in favor of the third, fourth, and fifth. Of these, the most important but least discussed is the fifth, voluntary restraint. As fish don’t notice the water they are swimming in, Americans don’t notice the array of informal norms, customs, and taboos that define what is, and is not, acceptable speech in the myriad regional, ethnic, religious, and other associational settings that constitute our society. Some of these voluntary restraints apply everywhere; others do not. Like the connective tissue in the body, they are more or less firm or flexible, depending on their function and location.
For different reasons, this connective tissue is under attack by both zealous libertarians and fanatical thought-police. This is dangerous, because without these informal norms holding the body politic together, the nation’s formal regime of legitimate coercion and self-regulation cannot survive. Most Americans sense this, which is why we want to repair those norms. But that is not going to happen until we face a very tough question: Can any free nation, especially one as huge and diverse as the United States, sustain a tradition of free speech based on voluntary restraint, when the arena in which the nation expresses itself culturally and politically is dominated by participants who have little interest in sustaining that tradition—and indeed, are invested in stoking the extremes?
By participants I mean the complex of privately owned print, broadcast, and digital media that in recent years have earned significant revenue pandering to the prejudices, fears, and angers of an increasingly polarized and ill-informed public. Right now, the most scrutinized companies are the digital giants Facebook, Google, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter, with their relentless deployment of state-of-the-art algorithms to extract personal data from billions of unwitting users by manipulating their emotions. But before addressing that fraught topic, we need to consider how the predigital legacy media laid the groundwork for our present predicament—first in popular culture, then in news, and now in an increasingly toxic online culture.
The Debasement of Popular Culture
“Never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved.”44xPlato, Republic, 4.424c, trans. Allan Bloom (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1968), 102. Today, that line from Plato’s Republic is taken as a statement of one-way causation. Or so it appears from the oft-repeated adage attributed to Andrew Breitbart: “Politics is downstream from culture.” Yet in Allan Bloom’s translation, this famous pronouncement by Socrates hints at an intriguing ambiguity. Might the stream of causation flow both ways, like the turbulent waters of the Bosporus?
There can be no doubt that the ways of American music—and culture—were moved in the late 1960s. To the twenty-first-century digital native listening through earbuds to a customized playlist, it may seem odd to treat music as anything more than a personal taste. But in the late 1960s, American popular music was the beating heart of a common culture shared by almost all segments of the US population—and beyond. That common culture was prone to generational, regional, and racial differences, of course. Yet it is striking to recall that the Americans protesting the Vietnam War had practically the same taste in music as the Americans fighting it; a similar predilection bound the rebellious youth fighting “the Establishment” on both sides of the Iron Curtain.55xThe best evidence I can offer for this assertion is the stunning soundtrack of The Vietnam War, the eighteen-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that aired on PBS in September 2017, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/home/.
That common culture did not survive, and in my first book, Hole in Our Soul, I argue that one of the death blows was the catastrophic transmogrification of American popular music.66xMartha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996). The starting point of that book is an appreciation for the extraordinary body of music created by black Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some call this the “Afro-American idiom,” others the “blues idiom.”77xThe first term comes from Henry Pleasants, Serious Music—and All That Jazz! (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1969), the second from Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, NY: Vintage, 1973). Both are passim. Whatever the name, it sprang from a heroically strong expressive culture forged on the anvil of slavery and segregation, which against great odds was able to enliven and give hope to a world traumatized by two world wars.
Afro-American music is still cherished for its tragic yet affirmative sense of life. But it got shoved aside in the late 1960s, when a wave of “avant-rock” musicians began to adopt artistic ideas and practices from the European avant-garde.88xThe list includes the Beatles in the band’s later years, when John Lennon came under the influence of New York Fluxus artist Yoko Ono; the Velvet Underground, which got its start performing with Andy Warhol’s recurrent “happening” called the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”; and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, among others. Much of the “experimentation” in late-1960s music was verbal and visual, so its musical impact was limited. The real damage was done by artists who sought to “liberate” the Afro-American idiom by filling it with randomness and noise. This was celebrated as innovation but in fact harked back to the pre–World War I futurist movements in Italy and Russia. The most influential of these adoptions was the notion of performance as an assault by a raging, radical, revolté artist on a dull, conventional, bourgeois audience. The contrast could not be greater with the Afro-American understanding of performance as a ritual led by a musician able to channel and express the full range of emotions felt by a beloved community, whether worshipers in a church, dancers in a juke joint, or patrons in an upscale jazz club.
A quick way to measure the long-term damage is to compare the original Woodstock festival, held in 1969 in Bethel, New York, with its two main successors: Woodstock ’94 and Woodstock ’99.99xFor a fanciful fictional account of these three Woodstocks, see my “Hip Van Winkle Goes to Woodstock,” The American Interest, August 16, 2019, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2019/08/16/hip-van-winkle-goes-to-woodstock/?utm-access=mbayles. At all three, there was a definite two-way Bosporus current flowing between the mood of the music and the behavior of the crowd.
I am not suggesting that the original festival was as idyllic as it appears in the 1970 documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music. As noted by Mick Brown of the London Telegraph, the Sharon Tate murders had occurred in Los Angeles the previous week; four months later, another festival, at the Altamont Raceway in Livermore, California, ended with a black teenager being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, which had been hired to provide security. The Telegraph comments that the Manson murders were the “horrific manifestation of the shadow side of hedonistic libertarianism,” and the killing at Altamont occurred while “the Rolling Stones were performing their celebration of revenge and subjugation, ‘Under My Thumb.’”1010x“Woodstock Festival: Where Did the Peace and Love Go?,” The Telegraph, August 15, 2016, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/news/woodstock-festival-where-did-the-peace-and-love-go/.
Nonetheless, the emotional tenor of the original Woodstock was struck by a slate of performers—Richie Havens, the Band, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, Arlo Guthrie, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—who were steeped in Afro-American styles ranging from blues to bluegrass, gospel to rockabilly, Dixieland to Latin jazz. Even the anti–Vietnam War anthem sung by Country Joe and the Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag,” was set to the tune of “Muskrat Ramble,” a New Orleans jazz standard from the 1920s.
Today, what most people remember about Country Joe’s performance is not the music, but the moment when he led the crowd in what came to be known as the “fish cheer”: “Gimme an F! Gimme a U! Gimme a C! Gimme a K! What’s that spell? What’s that spell?” Back then, the spectacle of several thousand people yelling the f-word in unison was still somewhat shocking. And like it or not, the spectacle had a clear political intent. But in the subsequent rise of heavy metal, punk, techno, gangsta rap, electronic dance, and their myriad progeny, political intent became little more than a marketing device. And yelling the f-word became routine.
This was certainly true at Woodstock ’94, which I attended in Saugerties, New York. Apart from a few graybeards from 1969, the majority of the acts—Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cypress Hill, Alice in Chains, and Henry Rollins—worked overtime to be as raging, radical, and revolté as possible. The fans followed suit, slamming one another in the mosh pit until the medical tent filled with casualties, including one young man who (a nurse told me) had broken his back in two places.
Five years later, the scene was worse. I did not attend Woodstock ’99, held on a vast expanse of tarmac on the site of the recently decommissioned Griffiss Air Force Base, in Rome, New York. But by all accounts, the emotional tenor was set by Fred Durst, lead vocalist for the “nu metal” band Limp Bizkit, who roared at the 220,000-odd revelers, “This is 1999, motherfuckers—stick those Birkenstocks up your ass!” As reported by Daniel Kreps of Rolling Stone, the hot humid weather, unforgiving tarmac, overflowing latrines, and shortage of potable water at this ill-starred event resulted in “an angry, aggressive crowd that left a charred festival site and sexual assaults in its wake.”1111xDaniel Kreps, “19 Worst Things About Woodstock ’99,” Rolling Stone, July 31, 2014, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/19-worst-things-about-woodstock-99-176052/. The rock press almost never blames the mayhem on the music. But in this case, there was general agreement that the violence on the ground was stoked by the belligerence on the stage.
When Limp Bizkit first appeared, the male fans in the mosh pit were mainly occupied with hoisting female fans to their shoulders and chanting “Show us your titties!” before groping and assaulting them. But after Durst spent a full hour rapping, screaming, and shrieking in a banshee voice that most humans use only a few times in their lives, the fans shifted to hurling projectiles at the stage and ripping the plywood sheathing off the sound relay towers, exposing the high-voltage equipment. When the closing act (the Red Hot Chili Peppers) signed off with the Jimi Hendrix song “Fire,” the mob proceeded to burn down every structure on the field. As Kreps concluded, “Woodstock ’99 devolved fully into Lord of the Flies.”1212xIbid.
I find it significant that in 2019 the effort to stage a major outdoor concert on the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock self-destructed through quarreling, lawsuits, and countersuits among the various partners and sponsors, as well as the decision, by three successive venues, that the risks entailed in hosting such an event were too great. “Peace and Love” had always been a sappy slogan, but “War and Hate” is not much of an improvement.
The Decay of the Public Forum
The American system of government was designed to be democratic, but not too democratic. The framers of the Constitution feared the prospect of a demagogue gaining power by manipulating the passions of the people. So wisely—and presciently—they placed a number of obstacles in the path of such a figure. Chief among these were the separation of powers among three branches of government and the creation of a federal regime that reserves critical aspects of sovereignty to the several states.
The framers did not make any rules for political parties, which they saw as divisive and undesirable. But as the country grew, so did the need to organize politicians—and voters. So parties emerged, along with other informal political institutions, including frankly partisan newspapers like the Federalist Gazette of the United States and the pro-Jackson Globe. Today the parties are weak, but in the late 1960s they were still strong enough that Democratic leaders were displeased when Senator Eugene McCarthy, an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, was recruited to enter the 1968 New Hampshire primary—and did surprisingly well against the sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Party leaders were even more unhappy when Bobby Kennedy entered the race and Johnson quit. Anger was simmering between the left wing of the party and the leaders even before Kennedy was assassinated. Afterward, it boiled over in ugly violence, both inside and outside the hall in Chicago where the 1968 Democratic Convention was being held. The convention ended up nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whom the party leaders had settled on once Johnson dropped out.
Even before Humphrey was defeated at the polls by Richard Nixon (in spite of a strong showing on Nixon’s right flank by Alabama governor George Wallace), the national Democratic leaders began putting together a commission, headed by Senator George McGovern, to make the presidential nominating process more democratic. Instead of relying on the traditional wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled caucus rooms, the state parties were now instructed to select 90 percent of the delegates in either of two ways: “participatory conventions” open to anyone claiming to be a party member, or statewide primaries in which the names on the ballot would be those of the candidates, not the delegates.1313xSee Byron E. Shafer, The Quiet Revolution: Reform Politics in the Democratic Party, 1968–1972 (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1982).
These reforms were intended to “give more power to the people,” as the slogan went. But as noted by the eminent political scientist Nelson Polsby, “The proliferation of primaries weaken[ed] the influence of state and local politicians…and increase[d] the influence of the news media” (emphasis added). Writing in 1983, Polsby saw this as a problem, because he understood that, however narrow and parochial the outlook of local party leaders might be, the parties on the national level were “broadly based and highly diversified,” and thus able “to generate policy on a very wide range of topics…[and] to evaluate wants and demands and select among them in some coherent and organizationally defensible fashion [that] greatly exceed[ed] that of any of the news media”1414xNelson Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1983), 72, 182. (emphasis added).
Today it sounds highly implausible that the news media could even begin to do these things. But in 1983 they were still, with some lapses, aware of their responsibility as the indispensable public forum for the working out of the American political process, especially on the national level. To be sure, southern conservatives began complaining of “liberal media bias” in the early days of the civil rights movement, and those complaints grew louder and more widespread during subsequent decades. But compared with today, both the newspapers and the broadcast networks took their job seriously.
In the case of newspapers, there was a firm commitment to the standards of good journalism that had evolved over the years since the invention of the rotary press made it possible to publish daily on a mass scale. But the newspapers also had a business model that made such a commitment viable. Here we must reckon with a hard truth: Serious journalism, especially the type of investigative reporting needed to hold power accountable, is rarely profitable. It’s expensive to produce, and its audience tends to be small. But before the digital era, American newspapers were able to support serious journalism by cross-funding it with revenue from advertising and subscriptions based on more popular features like sports, gossip, crime, and fashion.
The broadcast media were different. Because of their power and reach, radio and television in every country, including the United States, have from the beginning been subject to government oversight in some form. But the US government is unique in having allowed, indeed encouraged, private ownership from the start. This worked well for many years, in part because, like the newspapers, the major broadcast networks could sustain a commitment to good journalism by cross-funding their news divisions with earnings from their larger and more lucrative entertainment divisions. But unlike the newspapers, the networks were also required by law to report the news responsibly.
As noted earlier, the American tradition has emphasized two relatively benign modes of limiting speech: legitimate coercion by a democratic government, and self-regulation by private sector organizations in compliance with the law, and on occasion, in order to keep the government at bay. This was the case with the networks. As “free-to-air” broadcasters whose signal reached every home with a radio or TV, the networks operated under the watchful eye—or, as the saying went, the “raised eyebrow”—of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a government licensing agency set up in 1934. In practice, this meant that the FCC would not interfere unless the networks failed to monitor their own program content.
In a similar way, the FCC allowed the networks to fashion their own news programs. But here, too, there was plenty of oversight. In the first place, the FCC required every licensed broadcaster to provide enough news to “serve community needs.” It also enforced a rule called the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to devote a set amount of airtime to covering “controversial public affairs” in a manner that included “contrasting views.”1515xKathleen Ann Ruane, “Fairness Doctrine: History and Constitutional Issues,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, July 13, 2011, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40009.pdf. With the expansion of cable technology beginning in the late 1970s, these controls became less effective, because cable was defined legally as a subscription service and therefore not subject to the same constraints as free-to-air broadcasting.
By 1987 there were so many competing cable channels that the FCC under President Ronald Reagan voided the Fairness Doctrine, declaring it obsolete (a move motivated in part by a desire to correct perceived liberal media bias). The following year, Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves, and the media space that had previously served as an imperfect but civil public forum was invaded by “opinion” programs dedicated to the profitable business of stoking passions on both sides of America’s political and cultural divides. The long-term effect of this fundamental change in the civic role of electronic media was summed up in February 2016, when Leslie Moonves, then riding high as the CEO and president of CBS, told a group of media investors that the leading Republican candidate’s personal style “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. The money’s rolling in and…this is going to be a very good year for us…. It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald!”1616xOne of the first news outlets to report this story was the Hollywood Reporter. See Paul Bond, “Leslie Moonves on Donald Trump: ‘It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS,’” February 29, 2016, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/leslie-moonves-donald-trump-may-871464.
In Book Seven of Virgil’s Aeneid, Juno, the wife of Jupiter, conjures the Fury Alecto from the Underworld to rouse two hitherto peaceful kingdoms into a frenzy of hatred and bloodlust. After driving both rulers insane and “kindling hearts of country folk to war,” the “feral” Alecto, “her head alive and black with snakes,” reports back to Juno and offers to do still more. Juno is usually the most vindictive of the Olympians, but at this point even she has had enough of Alecto. She orders the Fury back to the Underworld, and the Fury obeys—after adding a few “last touches to the war.”1717xVirgil, Aeneid 7.663, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: NY: Vintage, 1981), 449–50, 746–55, 786.
As Virgil’s Roman readers understood all too well, Alecto represents how violence driven by hatred and revenge can spiral out of control. There is plenty of violence in the Aeneid. Virgil’s battle scenes are not quite as gory as Homer’s, but they are several cuts above Hollywood’s. But in ancient Greek and Roman poetry, the gore is not there to whet our appetite. It is there to remind us that the work of civilization requires knowing when to let the Furies out of their pit, and when to send them back. Even more helpfully, the violence serves to remind us of the wisdom of Athena, who, at the end of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, does not banish the Furies but, rather, gives them a special abode under the city, where their powers can be directed toward helping it grow and prosper, so that it may achieve self-government by virtuous citizens and replace vendettas with law courts.
Today Alecto has no fixed abode, not even a pit. Instead, she roams freely through cyberspace, inciting the same destructive passions that have always led to murder, mayhem, and war. The digital media did not create the rancor and division plaguing the United States today. But they have fanned the flames. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that a particular business model, developed by Facebook, Google, and Twitter, has been exacerbating the process by which Americans (and people in many other countries) have come increasingly to distrust, hate, and fear one another. In a 2018 book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, dissident tech guru Jaron Lanier singles out Facebook, Google, and Twitter as posing a special danger not posed by other tech giants such as Netflix and Amazon. Netflix and Amazon have their downsides. But because they make their money the old-fashioned way, by selling products to paying customers, Lanier absolves them of a greater evil built into the Facebook/Google/Twitter business model. As everyone except the US Congress now knows, the way this business model works is by offering the company’s services for “free,” then extracting every particle of data it can from the user, until the company has a gigantic cache that can be crunched a zillion different ways and sold to a zillion different buyers—some of whom, like the Russian trolls throwing monkey wrenches into our politics, are not nice.1818xJaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (New York: NY: Henry Holt, 2018).
Even more than the threat of Russian trolls, Lanier is concerned with the psychological and social effects of the technology deployed to extract user data—in particular, the highly sophisticated (and closely guarded) algorithms designed to keep users glued to their screens. Lanier doesn’t use this metaphor, but the difference he describes between a company that sells products digitally and one that extracts data is like the difference between a mosquito and a tick. According to National Geographic, “Ticks, unlike many blood-suckers, are adapted for the long haul. A mosquito bites, sucks and quickly leaves. A tick bites…and stays there for days. It needs to attach itself very firmly so that it can’t be easily dislodged. It does so with the curved teeth and spines on its mouthparts, and by burying them very deeply.”1919xEd Yong, “Here’s What Happens When a Tick Bites You,” National Geographic, October 30, 2013, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2013/10/30/heres-what-happens-when-a-tick-bites-you/. 20 Lanier, Ten Arguments, 15–16.
We might keep that difference in mind when logging on to Facebook, Google, Twitter, or their various spawn—Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat. Those platforms are in it for the long haul, and they want you to be, too. At one point, Lanier mentions that the algorithms deployed in social media are similar to those in computerized slot machines. By calculating the minimum number of wins required to keep a particular gambler playing, they personalize the process of getting hooked.2020xLanier, Ten Arguments, 15–16.
In the case of social media, the desired hit is not blood or money, but attention. Here, social science is learning what the algorithms already know: that the most attention-getting emotions online are the negative ones, especially anger. Or, as Lanier puts it, “Negative feedback turns out to be the bargain feedback, the best choice for business.”2121xIbid., 18–19. In a widely cited article, University of North Carolina political scientist Tim Ryan presents considerable evidence confirming that even low doses of anger-provoking material keep Internet users clicking their way through tweet after tweet, post after post, political message after political message. In his own experiments, Ryan found that “the anger-inducing advertisement more than doubles the click-through rate.”2222xTimothy J. Ryan, “What Makes Us Click? Demonstrating Incentives for Angry Discourse with Digital-Age Field Experiments,” Journal of Politics 74, no. 4 (October 2012), 1142, 1148–49.
Ryan also discovered that while anxiety leads people to seek online information that is “useful for protection,” anger leads them to seek information that is “useful for retribution.”2323xIbid., 1148–49. Here we encounter the vexed question of why Alecto becomes more dangerous online. In the physical world, where anger has a body, retribution can be delivered through such means as punches, kicks, blows, and outright combat. In the virtual world, there are no such physical discharges. Both the anger and the retribution are bodiless. In the online world, Alecto flies as swiftly as dark matter through a frictionless universe, leaving the human body behind. When that body is finally roused, it no longer wants to punch. It wants to kill.2424xFor a fascinating exploration of bodily presence—and absence—in the online world, see Judith Donath, The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), ch. 10.
Lanier’s solution is to bring public pressure on Facebook, Google, and Twitter to change their business model, so users become paying customers instead of data cows to be milked.2525xLanier, Ten Arguments, 98–99. Congress senses that something is wrong and wants the tech companies to fix it. So from time to time, the various CEOs are called on the carpet and grilled about political bias, antitrust violations, and other matters. But Congress has little interest in revisiting the actual law under which these companies operate.
That law, Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is a marvel of hairsplitting. On the one hand, it allows “intermediaries,” a term that now includes social media companies, to censor content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” On the other, it states that “intermediaries” are “not publishers.” So they can be held liable neither for hosting objectionable material nor for violating anyone’s rights by censoring it.2626xCommunications Decency Act, Pub. L. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 138 (1996), Sec. 230, Protection for Private Blocking and Screening of Offensive Material, Sec.230(A)(2)(a), https://www.justice.gov/ag/department-justice-s-review-section-230-communications-decency-act-1996. The Communications Decency Act is Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As one researcher succinctly put it, “The law lets the companies remove any content they want to, and promises not to punish them if they screw up.”2727xRose Mahoney, memo to author, July 5, 2020. It is often asserted that this “content moderation” is handled by algorithms that automatically delete the worst horrors. But that is not accurate. The great bulk of the work requires human cognition and judgment. Thus, the companies employ tens of thousands of low-paid “cleaners” in countries like India and the Philippines, where a large English-speaking labor force is already employed in massive call centers for Western corporations. For a chilling look at the psychological toll taken by this work of viewing and deleting millions of images of everything from animal torture to child pornography, terrorist beheadings to first-person video of mass shootings, see Sarah T. Roberts, Behind the Screen: Content Moderations in the Shadows of Social Media (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), and the related documentary film, The Cleaners, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Rieswieck, aired November 12, 2018, on PBS, https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/the-cleaners/.
Meanwhile, because these companies do business in the notional environment called cyberspace, it is far from clear under which legal jurisdiction they fall. When they comply with repressive speech laws in authoritarian countries, they are denounced by human rights organizations. When they claim First Amendment protection in Europe, they are reminded (in the words of Internet researcher Tarleton Gillespie) that they “face a world where the First Amendment is merely a local ordinance.”2828x Tarleton Gillespie, Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 12.
As the West grapples with the challenge of global Internet governance, two scenarios are said to be likely. One is that China will win, and the wide-open Internet dreamed up by Silicon Valley will turn into a vast, centrally administered “intranet,” in which all human liberties will be systematically squelched. The other is that the free nations will join together in their own “splinternet” (the polite term is “walled garden”), where their liberties will be protected from any incursions by China and its authoritarian allies.2929xFor a lucid analysis of this daunting challenge, see David Kaye, Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet (New York, NY: Columbia Global Reports, 2019). Maybe it’s a collective failure of imagination, but these scenarios sound a bit too familiar, like a replay of the Cold War in an era when the real portents may actually be quite different.
In any case, it is worth asking which goddess we want to rid us of Alecto. If we choose Juno, we will get the full power of Olympus cracking down and driving the Fury back to the Underworld, where her blind rage and that of her sisters will fester and suppurate until it is released again. If we choose Athena, we will get something better:
The word hurled in anger shall be caught
In a net of gentle words,
Words of quiet strength.
The angry mouth shall be given a full hearing.
I understand your fury.
But the vendetta cannot end,
The bloody weapon cannot be set aside
Till all understand it.
You will thank me for this.3030xAeschylus, “The Eumenides,” in The Oresteia, trans. Ted Hughes (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 189.