Social Media and the First Amendment’s Values

I agree on several points with the essay by Will Rinehart. He rightly criticizes the most extreme concerns about social media expressed since the 2016 election. I prefer to supplement his essay rather than rebut it.

I would like address our common question “Is Social Media Broken?” by drawing on Thomas Emerson’s classic work Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment. This book first appeared the year John Kennedy died. Yet Emerson spoke for more than Camelot. His first footnote referred to Milton, Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Mill, and many other free speech luminaries of the previous three centuries. Emerson sought to summarize the traditional case for free expression. If his ideas seem ill-equipped to resolve information age problems, perhaps the wisdom of the ages has run out, a proposition that merits our attention.

Emerson identified four “values sought by society in protecting the right to freedom of expression,” namely individual self-fulfillment, attainment of truth, participation in decisionmaking, and maintaining a healthy balance between social stability and change. These values offer a substantive means of considering our question. We should be prepared to admit that these values may conflict both in theory and when applied to the novel realm of social media. Perhaps they do not point toward a single affirmation or denial to our question. The internet’s youth makes it difficult to offer a complete assessment of its impact. I hope here to use Emerson’s framework to provoke as much as persuade.

Individual Self-fulfillment

Emerson remarked that Western thought assumes that “the proper end of man is the realization of his character and potentialities as a human being.” This implies that every person has “the right to form their own beliefs and opinions” along with a right to express both. This path toward self-realization demands the freedom to know and speak, and makes society a servant of individuals rather than their master.

On this front, social media is an unalloyed good. Not since the invention of the printing press have we seen such a radical expansion of the individual’s capacity for self-fulfillment through self-expression. Until just a few years ago, the cost of speaking scaled quite rapidly with audience size. In order to address anything larger than a suburban dinner party or passersby on street, one had to book a hall, compete for a number of limited timeslots on a public access television program, or devote huge resources toward developing specialized credentials. The larger your intended audience, the greater the opportunity cost. The internet, and social media in particular, has leveled this playing field. A speaker may address many as easily as she might talk to one. In this new environment, the reach of a speaker is limited only by the attention of prospective listeners.

Participation in Decisionmaking

Emerson believed free expression demands “an open discussion which is available to all members of a community.” Over time, this community has come to comprise all members rather than an elite, in part because each person has right to individual self-fulfillment.

Here too the case for social media seems strong. To paraphrase Michael Barone, in 1971 the headline on the New York Times became the first story on the CBS Evening News, the former read by the governing elite and the latter watched by almost everyone else. Gatekeepers profoundly shaped what Americans talked about, and in lesser measure, what they thought about what was talked about. Now the gatekeepers are weaker though not impotent; the Times, at least, still matters a lot. It may be said that the gatekeepers of the past enforced norms that fostered better speech and a healthier debate than we have now. Perhaps, but their decline has meant more people engage in speech on public affairs. Should we say that more participation worsens our public debates?

Maybe so. In a world overseen by gatekeepers, Emerson called for more participation. Some groups though - Nazis come to mind - were more marginalized in, than banned from, the public sphere at the time he wrote. Such marginalization was considered valuable because most of the elite had been told by early studies of social psychology that the mass of Americans could easily embrace the far right, thereby ending liberal democracy. That fear of the average American (or at least, some average Americans) persists among our elites today.

Nazis seem to be doing better now than in the past. They are more visible and perhaps better coordinated in their activities. Yet they remain marginal in American politics in part because their surprising emergence evoked tremendous condemnation. If we doubt that Donald Trump is Hitler, as I think we should, most Americans do not seem drawn to the Nazi cause. Groups can be marginalized by condemnation and publicity as well as by fretting gatekeepers.

Cass Sunstein argues that social media precludes a rich, public debate. People avoid contrary views on social media because they act as consumers rather than citizens. A genuine debate requires exposure to the other side, whereas social media offers only the #DailyMe. For Sunstein, social media both increases participation and worsens public debates. Yet the citizen within may not want the revealed wants of the social media consumer. As a reader of Sunstein would expect, the government can nudge the consumer toward becoming a citizen. The real person – the citizen/consumer – apparently cannot do that on their own. But our commitment to freedom of speech has assumed that individuals interacting socially through argument can meet the tests of citizenship. It also assumes they care about that aspiration. Why won’t the private governors of social media respond to those aspirations? At a minimum, given the known risks of government oversight of speech, private governance should be allowed to continue to evolve.

Attainment of Truth

Free expression, Emerson averred, is also “the best process of advancing knowledge and discovering truth.” By protecting speech, the government assures that citizens have different views to consider. Indeed, free expression demands a lot of citizens; they are called upon to sort out the true from the false. Following John Stuart Mill, Emerson remarked that discussion must be open “regardless of how false or pernicious” the new opinion appears to be. The new opinion might be true or partially true, or if false, we benefit from refuting it and in the process rethinking and retesting the accepted opinion.

The elimination of the old gatekeepers comes with its own costs. The supply of speech now far outstrips any individual’s attention. Hyperbolic, attention grabbing proclamations may initially win out over well-reasoned arguments. If people want to hear stories which confirm their biases, some speakers will cater to that demand. It remains to be seen if, in the long run, hollowly self-aggrandizing rhetoric can long win out when its consumers find themselves misled time and time again. This concern aside, fierce competition is exactly what we expect to see when barriers to entry are drastically lowered.

What about “fake news”? The question should be whether fake news dominated political speech. Did the open entry afforded by social media lead to many people embracing falsehoods? Rinehart suggests reasons for doubt, and a recent study found “no support for the hypothesis that the internet was instrumental in determining the 2016 election outcome.” Nathaniel Persily’s earlier conclusion that “we do not yet know how big an effect fake news had on the 2016 election” remains nonetheless defensible. We perhaps shall never know given the complexity of identifying such effects. But we have reason for caution in our conclusions.

Persily argues that social media companies will cope poorly with “fake news” and other problems because they seek profits rather than democratic values. But this view assumes that in the longer run the customers of these companies will not want a platform free of gross falsity. Here the difficulty will be distinguishing what customers want and what members of Congress desire. Private governance of social media in response to customers’ concerns is legitimate; private responses to public threats are not.

We must also avoid discounting the ways in which a more open media environment itself may aid the search for truth. Individuals, motivated either by general hostility to error or partisan allegiance, can instantaneously fact check anything said by anyone else. While letters to the editor and requests for correction relied on editorial goodwill, a corrective tweet may be immediately seen by everyone.

Balance between Stability and Change

Emerson claimed free expression helps maintain “the precarious balance between healthy cleavage and necessary consensus” in a society. In contrast, “suppression of expression conceals the real problems confronting a society and diverts public attention from the critical issues.” Free expression of unhappiness and criticism may be unpleasant, but it forces government to deal with the problems of the governed, thereby enhancing stability.

Social media brings new ideas and problems to the public agenda. Does it also polarize the public, thereby disrupting the consensus needed to deal with those problems? Probably not. A study by economists from Stanford Univeristy and Brown University found that “that the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media.”

We are emerging from an era dominated by television, a uniquely centralizing medium where many viewers passively consume information beamed to them from a single source. While the return of a decentralized media environment may be initially disruptive, television had long suppressed, or simply failed to host, a great many perspectives now evidently valued by Americans. The stability of that era may distort our views of current changes. If anything, we should be concerned that this change comes too late, that the voices demanding change have been ignored for too long.


Social media seems imperfect but hardly broken from the perspective of free speech. Public opinion formation prior to the advent of social media and the internet was imperfect and arguably broken in its own ways. Perhaps social media will ultimately betray the values implicit in freedom of speech. But for now, social media appears on the whole to serve the values of free speech, and the improvements needed appear possible if not likely.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.

Response Essays

  • John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.

  • Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.

  • Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.