Thoughts on non-promulgation
This the newsletter I wrote to accompany a May 2020 episode of my podcast. I love to complain about censorship on Twitter because it's a way of shaming the assholes who cheer for it and want to pretend they're being moral. But in my heart, I think Twitter shutting down speech is probably the best thing that can happen for speech, because it forces us to build new and better platforms that can't be shut down so easily.
"You can't stop other people from reading that which you disagree with."
@pierre_rochard on Noded 0.62.0
Speech laws and regulation and platform moderation are always about what "others" should see. Because you have to see it to moderate it. Just something to think about.
The first amendment
The way I'm thinking about "free speech," as a principle, is that I'm not going to use my power proactively to silence your speech. The actual law, of course, is about prohibiting the government from using its power to silence speech. But we're adults, we can talk about right and wrong it's okay.
Censorship is not an educational tool, it's a tool of control. You don't know what's being censored because you never see it. That was the whole point. So how do you know whether the right things are being censored? The potential for misapplication and the lack of means of correction are sky-high.
But platforms like Facebook and Twitter are in a dumb no-man's land where their "speech" is primarily the promulgation of other people's speech.
I personally would not want to be forced promulgate information I find abhorrent. But I also don't want to stop other people from accessing information I disagree with. Censorship doesn't restrain conspiracy theories, it validates them. The cure for wrongthink isn't a ban, it's better information. I also believe people who have facts on their side aren't afraid of people hearing "different facts."
And as great as I sound to myself when I say these things, none of it is useful as a prescription for how Twitter or Facebook should act.
Maybe there's like a range of speech-adjacent activities we can define:
- Censorship: actively using power to limit what someone can say or hear.
- Non-promulgation: "silencing" others through inactivity.
- Promulgation: republishing others.
- Self-publication: creating your own platform to host your own speech or the speech of others.
Promulgation is really some of the most powerful speech there is. And, of course, there's no promulgation without non-promulgation. Otherwise you're just transmitting static.
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are self publishers with a truly historic level of promulgation, and now they're trending toward non-promulgation, which seems only reasonable. Meanwhile government is flirting with censorship, because it really has no power other than to destroy and oppose. Meanwhile meanwhile I'm thinking I need to get myself some of that self-publishing apparatus to secure and promote the ideas I think are good.
As a sidenote, I do find it sad sometimes how narrow a view we often have of what is acceptable and useful discourse, but there's really nothing I can do to change that. If it's easy to stay within the appropriate bubble of thought, then times seem good. But it leaves you with no recourse if you start getting extra-bubble ideas. And it might be actively harming the formation of extra-bubble ideas (which was the whole point of non-promulgation, obviously).
So what can I do?
I think I'm becoming a censorship accelerationist.
Personally, I see no good solution to "Twitter should moderate more" vs. "Twitter should moderate less," other than "Twitter's decisions have no impact on what I can say and who I can listen to." Like with Bitcoin and money, I'm not looking for reform, I'm looking for the exit.
I have no desire to force platforms to publish content that they believe is against their own interests, or against their moral code or public duty. And as an anarchist, the idea of a "public square" sounds pretty dumb to me. Union Square isn't where I go to to hear great information. I go there to watch the skateboarders.
A few points on this:
- Echo chambers are natural and healthy.
Editing, curating, and gatekeeping are important methods of dealing with information. I have inputs and outputs. By constraining my inputs to what I believe to be trustworthy and relevant, and even further constraining my outputs along those lines, I'm in a sense creating value for anyone who listens to me.
Echo chambers are actually wonderful for engaging with opposing ideas because when you trust that someone is on your "side," it's much safer to listen to their critique. When it comes from outside your tribe it just feels like an attack and must be defended against.
If Twitter Facebook YouTube to create echo-chambers for their own crowd, I say let them.
- I don't want to host porn on my blog comments.
Sorry not sorry. Along these lines, I still can't figure out how to feel about Tor.
- The Disney film, "Newsies," starring Christian Bale.
Where do you talk about whether or not it's okay to talk about something? With people you trust. Like with Christian Bale, for instance. We need more, not fewer, conspiracies.
How do you get a message opposing the "New York World" out in the world? Not by publishing a story in "New York World," but by giving the story to the opposition or starting your own.
I don't rage at HBO that my podcast isn't on their "platform." Twitter is like a newspaper "anyone can publish to." YouTube is like an HBO "anyone can publish to." They're kind of non-sensical and untenable.
I think the key may be
Stop thinking of speech on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook as other people's speech. Start seeing Twitter handles the same way you'd see a byline in a newspaper or magazine. A newspaper might run an opposing editorial, but it's still only publishing information it wants you to hear. This is seriously not a knock on on these platforms, but of the impossibility of being a promulgator. Impartiality can't be achieved, so why not lean into it?
I'm not for or against section 230. Whatever the government is going to do or not do, I'm sure it's going to suck. So how do I make sure it sucks the least for myself and the people I care about?
One we realize what platforms actually are, we become more desperate to own our own printing presses. Once we have our own printing presses, we can decide whether or not to promulgate. There's no reason technically that what we now call "Twitter" couldn't be composed of millions of independent publishers talking to each other over a protocol. We just haven't felt the need.
I think the bubble's going to pop. I think we're going to feel it. So now is the time to prepare.
A practical solution, though?
I don't know. Mastodon? Email? I should update my blog.