Michael Spence Column for Disagreeing Well: Responsible platform moderation is not the same as censorship

If you actually care about facilitating a “civil discussion” you’ll stop acting like publishing uninformed, right-wing takes are the way to do that.

As an editor of one of the country’s most radical student newspapers, I think I’ve got a fairly strong grasp on the notion of press freedom. Ask literally anyone, and they’ll agree that one of the fundamental characteristics of a democratic society is the freedom of speech. Free speech can be productive; it challenges popular ideas and encourages healthy debate, all in service of a better society. And the press is one of the institutions entrusted with facilitating that. Efforts to curtail debate (i.e, censorship) are characteristic of a dysfunctional democracy.

But having freedom of speech does not give you the licence to say whatever uninformed, truly detestable bullshit you come up with.

Nor does it give any institution entrusted to facilitate democratic debate the licence to cede their platform to such bullshit.

Let’s pivot for a second and talk about the notion of objectivity. Objectivity is one of the core pillars of traditional media, and indeed any platform through which a variety of discourses are presented. It is one of the reasons we’ve historically trusted such platforms – we expect them to present things in a fair and balanced way.

It’s also a notion that has been largely discredited in both theory and practice over the last couple of decades (just look at the effect that Murdoch media has had on our debates surrounding climate change or vaccines). It’s been largely accepted that those who claim the “objective” position do more harm than good – “objectivity” is often used to obscure and reinforce the perceived realities of the powerful, etc. etc (see our first editorial for more on this x).

The neoliberal commitment to objectivity also binds platforms that facilitate discourse to this notion of balance; that to every issue, there are two sides.

Of course, this is also bullshit. There are no “two sides” to the issue of climate change, or the importance of vaccines, or that university staff are systemically exploited by management. There is only the truth, and those who have zero fucking clue what they are talking about. To pretend like such things are up for debate, or that both sides have equal merit and validity, makes absolutely no fucking sense. Call it what it is – by representing them as legitimate arguments (e.g, disproportionately publishing more anti-union than pro-union takes) you are giving an undue megaphone to actual right-wing discourses that will have real-world consequences on real people.

What’s the solution then? It’s responsible journalism. It’s a responsible representation of the issue. It’s responsible moderation of democratic discussion, one that does not place equal emphasis on “both sides”. One that takes responsibility for the power and influence they wield as an entrusted platform of debate, and demonstrates a critical awareness of the real-world effects of discourse. THAT is how we facilitate a civil discussion.

Censorship closes the possibility of discourse and its productive effects. Responsible platform moderation preserves it, and is essential for a functioning democracy.