Is Social Media a Crowded Movie Theater?

(Blog) If we accept limiting free speech in a crowded space, then we need to have a hard conversation about social media.

We all know that we can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded movie theater, that our freedom of speech can’t put other people in danger. We also can’t harass, make death threats, and so on — none of that is controversial. Yes, there’s a hard to define “gray zone” when trying to decide what constitutes unallowable “hate speech,” and we all know about that debate (which I discuss in “The Spectre of McCarthyism”) — and though a critical discussion, that’s not what I’m interested in today.

Instead, I want to focus on an idea Mike M. brought to my attention: Is social media inherently “a crowded movie theater” (especially if we have a large following like the President)? Additionally, if we are the President, are we considered the equivalent of a fire marshal, and so for us to shout “fire” is especially consequential?

If all this follows, then perhaps Twitter is justified to ban Trump from its platform? Then again, perhaps not.1

Social media in general does seem to be a “movie theater,” and to the degree a person has a large following is to the degree “the movie theater is crowded.” The more authority a person has on social media, the more a person is perhaps trusted, and so the more consequential it is if that person shouts “fire” (or “the election was stolen”; “the Liberals are destroying America”; etc.). But are we going to ban anyone with authority off social media? Of course not, so then the question is how do we determine if what a person with authority says on social media is the equivalent of shouting “fire?” And who will we give the power to make that determination?

Everyone on social media is in a theater, and to the degree they have a following is to the degree they are in a crowded theater. Anyone can shout “fire” in the theater, and it’s always bad to do so, but perhaps unless we have authority and credibility, no one will care that much what we have to say.2 Remember, it’s bad to shout “fire” in a crowded theater because it causes a harmful stampede. If it doesn’t, then perhaps it’s still wrong to shout “fire,” but not that big of a deal. But if we shout “fire” and people believe us, then there is a problem. Perhaps not if only one or two people believe us, but what if a thousand do? Then there will be trouble, and the likelihood of that “mass belief” happening is relative to the shouter’s authority and credibility.

So, holding the metaphor in mind, here are four questions:

1. Is it unacceptable to shout “fire” in an empty theater?

2. At what number of people do we consider a theater “crowded?”

3. What phrases, ideas, etc. do we consider the equivalent of shouting “fire?” (Repeating conspiracies? Explicitly lying? And who decides?)

4. How many people in the theater must believe us before we deserve punishment for shouting “fire?”

Perhaps we don’t accept the idea that social media is a “movie theater?” Indeed, perhaps that is a faulty premise for the average person, but I think it’s a fair consideration for someone like the President of the United States — such a person seems to inevitably find his or her self in “the domain of a crowded theater.”

Now, if we accept there are grounds for kicking Trump off Twitter, I want to make it very clear that this isn’t a choice lacking consequence. As I discuss in “The Spectre of McCarthyism” (which is mostly focused on discussing Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch), Christopher Hitchens claimed that it is not enough to have the freedom of speech; we must also feel like we can speak freely. There is both what I call “the legal meaning of freedom of speech” (or LMFS) and “social meaning of freedom of speech” (or “SMFS”). If we have legal protection to speak but don’t feel like we can say what we feel like saying, our legal protection probably won’t mean much to us.

Whenever SMFS is threatened (perhaps for good reason), the meaning of LMFS is also threatened. Sure, I’m glad I won’t be thrown in jail for saying x, but if saying x costs me all my friends and family, who cares? I am legally free to say x, but not socially — in a sense, not really.

To kick Trump off Twitter risks hurting the social meaning of free speech, but if Trump wasn’t kicked off, perhaps he would cause another incident like what happened at the Capitol? But what if Trump supporters interpret Trump’s removal as proof that Conservatives are being targeted in America, which motivates those supporters to take more drastic measures into their hands?

It’s not an easy choice.

At the very least, I think we need to act like it’s not easy.

If the conversation on free speech is going to be useful, we need to make distinctions between LMFS and SMFS, and also decided if we think social media is inherently “a movie theater” and for what kind of people that theater is inexorably “crowded.” Until we have that talk, I’m not sure how far our talking will take us.





1Please note that Murray Rothbard does not accept the “crowded theater thought experiment” as justifying curtailing free speech, but I’m not going to expand on his argument here.

2It’s important to note “authority” and “credibility” don’t always go together, and that perhaps a reason Trump was allowed to say what he said for so many years was because people assumed he lacked credibility.

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