We are witnessing a tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Seemingly every day, the world is abuzz with the latest controversy, which these days seem to almost invariably be about who is responsible for sharing so-called “misinformation” and who is responsible to moderate it. This is a terrifying trajectory that has no good outcome.
As of the writing of this article, Joe Rogan – former MMA announcer and immensely popular podcast host – is public enemy number one. Musicians and others are protesting his podcast and its host alleging that he is spreading “misinformation,” specifically about Covid-19. Within the past few weeks, the tragic anniversary of the Capitol riot occurred and the US was abuzz with commentaries and opinions about what happened, why and who was responsible. As one example, this story, heard on NPR on January 5, 2022, included an interview with Mr. Craig Silverman from ProPublica and his investigation into Facebook’s content moderation around the time of the Capitol riot.
As he shared about his research, Mr. Silverman relayed some of the responses he received from Facebook, including this statement: “The blame for January 6th lies at the feet of Donald Trump and others who were spreading these lies; it is not Facebook’s fault.” This simple statement is both demonstrably correct and terrifyingly incorrect, making it hopelessly contradictory. Facebook’s representative is correct that the events of January 6th are not Facebook’s fault and admits there is only so much an entity like Facebook can do to influence the behavior of others, but then they then undermine their own logic by simply blaming another external source instead. Somehow, Facebook cannot control the actions of others, but the President of the United States can. Mr. Rogan’s podcast is another powerful example. The protests and demands to have it removed imply that by having conversations with others (with whom the protesters disagree), Mr. Rogan somehow possesses the power to make people believe and act on “misinformation.”
This laughable, head-shaking illogic is illustrative of so much of the dialogue in our current culture.
This brought to mind the famous work of psychologist Julian Rotter who outlined the notions of internal and external locus of control. Admittedly unusual terms, Rotter explained that locus of control is how much persons perceive that they have control over their own actions versus how much control external events in their life have that control. Put another way, those with a high internal locus of control have an ‘I got this’ mentality and are convicted that they are in control of their own lives; those with a high external locus of control feel their life is at the mercy of external forces beyond their control/influence. Another related concept, pioneered by another well known psychologist, Fritz Heider, advanced the concept of the self-serving bias. Generally, Heider stated that we tend to give ourselves credit when things go well and blame others when they do not.
These two concepts help to lay a foundation for the mess that is our current world and to explain why people like Mr. Rogan are in the crosshairs and others can aim the weapon without guilt. As I have written about previously (see America has Borderline Personality Disorder), American culture is riddled with hopeless and indefensible contradictions; issues like these are no exception. Those who do not bat an eye at the emotional hurricane surrounding Mr. Rogan or a statement like the one Facebook offered to Mr. Silverman are guilty of an odd combination of external locus of control and self-serving biases, which combine to help them justify their view based on where they want to see blame assigned, not where it rightfully belongs. While Americans often taut our self-reliance and hard work (i.e. internal locus of control, I succeed because I work hard), they are quick to assign blame to external factors for problems they do not like (e.g. I’m sick because that person didn’t wear a mask or get vaccinated).
In such instances, just like in the example above from the Facebook spokesperson, there is no dissonance over the irrationality of the beliefs or statements. When things are going well, I want the credit; I made that reality happen. But, when things are not going well (i.e. how I want them to go), I need somewhere to lay the blame. Thus, Mr. Rogan and his cronies are lying to the American public, so he – and everyone else like him – must be silenced. The logic says, he is the reason people aren’t doing what they are “supposed to.” This same ‘logic’ continues, we need to remove him and by doing so, people will then do what they are supposed to.
Sadly, the biases toward what we want to believe are so powerful that we are often quick to demand action and to assure the blame is assigned where we want. We saw this in full force around January 6, 2021 (and frequently since). Many, including outspoken politicians, were demanding that companies like Facebook, Twitter, etc. be held accountable for allowing “misinformation” to proliferate their platforms. It is not difficult to find groups who demand accountability from Facebook, others who want President Trump arrested, and yet others who blame the politicians themselves for the outcome of January 6th. In each case, the logic is the same: someone else (i.e. Facebook, President Trump) are the reason this happened; were it not for them/him, it would not have.
For better or worse, the reality is much simpler, albeit less satisfying: individuals make their own choices.
Do people sometimes make choices based upon faulty beliefs? Yes, but they still make choices. Do they take action on false information? Yes, but they take action. Do people make regrettable, bad choices? Yes, but they choose. Do some people mindlessly believe whatever they are told by their media platform of choice? Yes, but they make numerous choices to be mindless and not vet that information further. And of course people can be influenced, even manipulated, by others.
The information shared with Mr. Silverman is correct in that it (sort of) says it’s not the job of Facebook (or any other tech company) to police content and be the arbiters of truth. When we give this responsibility away, the final determination about what is true, acceptable or allowable will invariably be the subjective judgment of some content moderator – which is ironic given that subjective judgment is precisely what we were supposedly seeking to stop in the first place. Interestingly, we’ve seen the runaway train this has become as more and more people (and ideas) are banned from large social media platforms.
Are we influenced by what we read and hear? Of course we are, and that influence can be significant when coming from what seems to be a legitimate and powerful source (see the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram and the awful truths he uncovered regarding human obedience!). However, we are not automatons programmed to act based upon information we heard or read. Thus, in the end, it is (and can only be) the responsibility of each individual person to exercise personal discernment about the information they are given.
One of the greatest things about human existence is the ability to decide, even if we decide to export perceived control of our lives (i.e. have an external locus of control). However, the choice to surrender perceived control does not absolve us of responsibility. When individuals choose to act on ‘misinformation,’ they are held accountable for their individual choices. This is the very structure of the American justice system. If a man kills his wife because his best friend said she was unfaithful to him, it is not the best friend who is guilty in the eyes of the law (morally wrong perhaps, but not legally). The best friend will not be censored by the government, Big Tech, or anyone else for spreading ‘misinformation.’ No, it is the man who chose to act without discernment and the justice system, as the society-chosen arbiter of truth, will decide his fate based on his behavior and motives.
There are many people in American society today who did not trust vaccines long before Covid-19. We did not villainize or ‘cancel’ those people or their beliefs; we provided them with information, allowed them to make a choice and take the risk into their hands. Similarly, the perpetrators of the January 6th, 2021 riot made their choices. Facebook did not make them do it. Donald Trump did not make them do it. In the months, weeks and days leading up to January 6th, they chose over and over again. In the time they spent walking to the Capitol, they chose. As they destroyed barriers, threatened Capitol police, broke windows, scaled walls, yelled, screamed and ultimately breached the Capitol, they chose. In the months since, we have seen the American justice system do precisely what is was designed to do: scrutinize the actions of the individual, turn them inside out, examine their motives, respect their individual rights, and then hold individually accountable.
It is a dangerous road to tread when we are willing to ascribe responsibility/blame for one person’s action to another. It’s downright terrifying to willfully censor the views of others with whom we disagree. My colleague, Dr. Lee Mellor (Twitter, 2022) said it well, “Censoring art and information WAS not, IS not, and will NEVER be moral or cool. There are countless books and programs that I think spread lies and degeneracy. I have never called for banning any of them. I argue against the content of those works, not their ability to exist.”
Abandoning reason and civil dialogue in favor of eliminating the existence of ideas we do not like invariably leads us down the road to similar places the likes of where North Korea and China have gone. In those cultures, the information the public is allowed to hear is frequently only what the authoritarian regimes say is acceptable. We must not allow this to happen; instead, as Dr. Mellor advises, we must argue the content, reason, logic and value of information, not ban it.
We need to run screaming from this tragic trajectory we have created. Ideas are not scary. Thinking is good. Disagreements sharpen minds. If we are to push out anyone, it must be those who seek to destroy the dialogue. If we truly value freedom, we must allow our people to exercise it within the boundaries civilized society has created and then trust our justice system to handle those who violate those boundaries.
This post has been edited from the original to more accurately reflect the role Mr. Silverman had in the content of the NPR story cited.