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Buckle up! The role of seatbelts in the Battle for Truth

Buckle up! The role of seatbelts in the Battle for Truth

As it was with cars in the mid-20th Century, so it is with the internet now. These technologies are wonderful advancements for humanity, but they also need to be prevented from causing harm


Over the course of the past weeks, I’ve been in and out of the podcast studio at our newsroom recording a series of ThinkIns on the Battle for Truth. At the end of each one, I try – as we do in all ThinkIns – to pull things together, to come to a point. And it’s been one of those happy pieces of work that leaves you preoccupied: it’s one thing to come to a view at the end of an hour of argument, another to take it really slow and try and make sense of more than a month of debate, to see if you can come away with a real take on truth in the internet age.

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise and, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to talk about seatbelts. It’s the way I’ve come to think about making the public square a safer place. Here’s why.

There’s been a thread that’s run through all of our conversations about the Battle for Truth and it’s this:

Social justice has been failed by market liberalism. The powers that be seem to have profited most from our freedoms; the hierarchy has solidified, the power gap widened. In this, the Battle for Truth is the sibling of the failure on fairness.  Misinformation is as much of a blot on the reputation of the West’s political culture as inequality is a drain on confidence in the market economy. They’re linked: the system is not working.

And it’s driving many on both the Left and the Right mad. Progressives, plenty of them, are at their wits’ end over the stubbornness of racism, sexism and social exclusion, so much so that they have become illiberal in the views and voices they wish to hear or, in some cases, will permit to be spoken. At the same time, a good number of conservatives are deliberately seeking out the culture wars, reaching for reactionary dog whistles and flag-waving nostalgia as an emotional answer to the social and economic disruptions they can’t seem to fix. And each side hysterically caricatures the other: Orwellian, political-correctness-gone-mad censors on the one hand; Ayn Rand libertarian technophile suckers on the other.

All of which has made me think about seatbelts. Because we have been here before. In 1965, the car industry had been around for more than half a century and the world was in a similar three-way tug of war between technology, liberty and responsibility. The car had become the symbol and, literally, the vehicle of American freedom and the new engine of the post-war economy. The number of deaths on American roads was creeping towards 50,000 a year. Ralph Nader, in the US, published Unsafe at any speed. In the UK, Barbara Castle was introducing safety legislation, among other things mandating manufacturers to put seatbelts in cars.

Governments did step in and we learned four things:

1) Seatbelts didn’t end accidents and dangerous driving, but they did save lives (more people died on the roads in 1968 than last year; in fact, the fatality rate in the US has, by the most conservative estimates, halved since then – arguably, it’s fallen even further in the UK.) Deliberate, concerted interventions aren’t cure-alls, but they can work.

2) The car industry liked to shift the blame, either tasking the government with “enforcement” or putting the responsibility on the “education” of the individual. Sound familiar? We’re in a similar game now, where technology plays pass-the-parcel, handing off responsibility to consumers, regulators and politicians.

3) National parliaments can fix international problems, even if it is one country at a time.

4) Seatbelts didn’t require nationalisation of the car industry, but it did need the government to stop bystanding and step in. Sometimes you need something less than radicalism but more than fatalism.

The internet is like the car. Its benefits far, far outweigh its risks. But it is a real danger – I don’t think I need to rattle through the damage to mental health, the access to violent images and organisations, a megaphone for lies, and an agent of aggressive social division. Yes, it’s up to those plutocrats to behave ethically; it’s going to need us punters to understand the new responsibilities of digital citizenship. But, above all, it’s up to parliaments to end the new frontier free-for-all and make the online world safer and more trustworthy. In practice, this means the internet’s equivalent of seatbelts.

One area of work is friction – i.e. the ability to put the brakes on the distribution of content online. In the series of ThinkIns on the Battle for Truth, I was really struck by a point made in the discussion between Noah Feldman, architect of Facebook’s Supreme Court, and Poppy Wood about the difference between the freedom of speech and the freedom of reach – i.e. it’s one thing to think you have a right to say what you want, another to think you have a right for it to reach tens of millions of people. One’s a political principle, the other is a feature of industrial design. Governments can and should require platforms to introduce more friction.

Another is the application of the existing laws on free speech to the internet world. The laws on hate speech, slander and libel, national security, mental health, consumer protection, misrepresentation and misinformation, copyright, privacy, accountability and redress are all constraints on free speech. And they are all already enshrined in law, established to govern first the press and then broadcasters. A body of legislation – like the public interest laws governing the printed word and public service regulation that applies to broadcasting – now needs to be put in place, nation by nation, for the tech sector. It should set the terms not just of what’s prohibited, but the application of existing information laws to technology platforms and also set expectations for the platforms on accountability, data responsibility and personal safety.

Personally, I’d like to know who’s responsible for all this. We haven’t had a Barbara Castle who’s made it her business to ensure public safety on the internet. And that’s because we – with the connivance of the tech sector have diffused responsibility for digital industries. It’s laughable that the person in charge of internet policy in the UK is also responsible for the RSC and the FA Cup. Laughable, but not funny. We have a ministry of transport; let’s get one for AI, data and digital industries.

And then there’s the culture wars. The UK is not honest about its past. Since the ThinkIn we recorded on Rhodes Must Fall and whether we can trust our history, a comment made by Max Hastings, the historian and journalist, has lived with me. He is right: we foreclose on the conversations we most need to have. And, these days, politicians are the worst possible curators of national conversations about history. I trust them now less than ever. History is not just political arguments about the present; it’s become a political refuge from dealing with it.

The debate that’s the most overblown is the one about cancel culture. It’s also the one that I’ve found most difficult. Here, I really struggle to make up my mind. What I have heard makes me think that censorship is a bigger threat than cancel culture. Freedom of speech is prayed in aid on all sides in the battle for truth; most of the time, the idea itself is abused. But the nature of freedom of speech – rights and limitations – are well established in law. This is not a legal battle. It’s a cultural one – and the bigger threat to the truth comes from the powerful (state abuse of and access to the microphone) than from protesters.  Cancel culture may inhibit and intimidate, but it generally doesn’t silence.

My colleague Matt d’Ancona is not so sure. I put this to him in an email at the start of the week and here’s what he wrote back:

“I am less sanguine about cancel culture. The cases of academic lock-out – not least the refusal to accept research projects on, say, detransitioning – are multiplying and, with them, a culture of self-censorship is spreading virally. By far the worst aspect of identity politics is its fixation with shutting down speech, or limiting those who can speak on specific subjects, and the law is not a sufficient protection against this phenomenon. There needs to be a cultural pushback – from the media, schools and civic groups – not least to save social justice from itself…. There is a clear and present danger that the yearning of social justice movements to silence and to scold will create a backlash further down the line, and now is the time to prevent that.”

And, when I read that, I thought: well, I agree with that too. Sometimes, I suppose, coming to a clearer view means submitting to complexity and, yes, being confused.

The job of government, of course, goes beyond acting as arbiter of free speech. Truth is no substitute for change. Truth is no substitute for justice.

The frustration of radicals on left and right, Corbynistas and Trumpers, is that market liberalism, while claiming to be the engine of opportunity, has preserved the powerful and exacerbated hierarchy. Both sides fume at the selfish elite, at the triumph of me over we. And the argument goes that the media is aiding and abetting. The level of fury has people reaching for a range of wrong answers – either Luddite “switch off the internet”; buck-passing, caveat emptor calls for greater digital literacy; calls for international agreements on internet oversight that just keep on kicking the can down the road.

But there’s also a place here for a meaningful alternative to the centrist orthodoxy embodied by the likes of the Economist. If social capitalism is the riposte to market liberalism in economics, then the idea of civic liberty can do the same on technology and culture. It means checking the rights of the individual in the interests of their community. Civic liberty means weighing the we with the me, adjudicating the tension between personal freedom and social health.

A generation has grown up remade by the internet. And, for all that time, we’ve looked on, exhilarated and, increasingly, aghast. And there’s self-examination that’s needed in the media and, in particular, in the world of journalism. To many on both the left and right, the media has been co-opted by the powerful, whether that’s the Deep State, the Establishment or the vested interests.

In response, there has been what Matt describes as “a terrible debasement of language – the gradual encroachment of the idea that ‘my truth’ is as ‘valid’ as anyone’s. Ironically, the far Right and the social justice Left agree on this: one side calls it ‘alternative facts’, the other appeals to ‘lived experience’. In any battle for truth, the reassertion of empiricism, data-gathering, and evidence as the basis of everything else is the key. To be frank, far too much of what passes for journalism now is just a curated inventory of feelings – worst of all, the feelings of the journalist.”

As a result of the series of ThinkIns on the Battle for Truth, I have come to a clearer sense of what to think. Perhaps not clear. But clearer. There is such a thing as The Truth. And, more important still, there is the essential belief in seeking it.

Thank you for listening. And have a very good weekend.