New media, old challenges

Twitter’s attempt to stifle this speech only helped spread it

Watergate icon and Hillary Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein once talked of his “difficult relationship to the truth.”

 

Well, some new media outlets seem to have a difficult relationship to free speech.

Especially when it comes to conservatives.

Twitter recently rejected a paid political ad for Tennessee U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn because in it, she says “I fought Planned Parenthood, and we stopped the sale of baby body parts …” The social media platform explained that the “baby body parts” reference “has been deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction …”

Absolutely. So?

Days later, Twitter reversed its decision, saying “after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues.”

Blackburn thinks there’s another reason Twitter did a 180: the public firestorm against yet another censorship of a conservative.

“The American people have just risen up,” the congresswoman running for Sen. Bob Corker’s seat said.

We think she’s right. What else changed but the backlash?

The First Amendment isn’t absolute; there are limits. It doesn’t give you the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded movie house – or, as Woody Allen wryly noted, to yell “movie!” in a crowded firehouse.

Still, free speech is what makes this country really hum. And no constitutional amendments are necessary to protect pleasantries.

Rep. Blackburn’s comment is certainly shocking in its plain-spokenness and unsettling in its honesty – and accuracy – particularly in this politically correct age in which chickens are furiously spitting out eggshells for us to walk on.

And it’s absolutely fair game.

But that’s the thing with free speech; it often upsets. It wouldn’t truly be free otherwise.

Newspapers are accustomed to the push and pull of vigorous debate; journalism has long fashioned itself – only partly whimsically – as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” But the Internet’s new-media mavens are new to the game, and still quite uncomfortable with – well, discomfort.

We can tell them that uneasiness with certain speech doesn’t necessarily make it unacceptable. And, in fact, an extra effort must be made to accommodate speech with which one disagrees. And no doubt, many in Silicon Valley disagree with Marsha Blackburn on the right to life.

The sumptuous irony of Twitter’s initial attempt to stifle Blackburn’s campaign video is that it only made her video exponentially more interesting, and likely much more viewed.

Sometimes, trying to suppress speech only succeeds at spreading it.

 

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