A conversation with David French on social media, free speech, and cultural division

This is a transcription of the WeeklyTech Podcast interview with David French. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app to get new episodes each Monday morning or listen online.

JASON THACKER: David, thanks again for joining us on WeeklyTech. David and I had originally scheduled to record this podcast on January 6th, right as the riots and the assault on the United States Capitol began. Needless to say, today’s conversation is going to speak directly to the role of social media in this attack but also how we got to this point in society and what to do about it. 

David, to get started, can you tell us a little bit about your book “Divided We Fall” and why you decided to write it?

DAVID FRENCH: The first paragraph says it all as far as setting the stage for the book. It says that the continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed. And it gives a reason for that in that first paragraph: there is no truly important political, cultural, legal, social, or religious force that is pulling Americans together more than it’s pushing Americans apart. What I essentially do is I track all of these major trends that are pulling America apart, and I make an assertion that we can’t keep doing this. 

Interestingly, I finished the book towards the middle or end of March, right before the pandemic really had hit us fully, certainly before the contention and division around the election. Now several months later, I have to say that if anything, the themes of the book have started to emerge faster than I thought that they would.

JASON: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and why you were interested in writing something like this?

DAVID: I grew up in the South, but I’ve lived all across the U.S. I was born in Alabama, raised in Kentucky and Tennessee, went to law school at Harvard and worked in Manhattan before coming back home to the south where I now live in Franklin, Tennessee. I served in the military in Iraq during the surge in ‘07 and ‘08, and I spent a lot of my career as a pro-life and religious liberty attorney for organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice.

One of the things that I noticed, especially after I got back from Iraq in 2008, is that American divisions were growing and growing in a very toxic way. It’s not like we were becoming more different from each other but in an affectionate way like, “Oh yeah, I don’t understand these Californians, but they’re kind of quirky and nice.” We’re growing more divided in a particularly toxic and hostile way.

I had just come out of a civil war in Iraq where Sunni and Shia were fighting each other to the death. We obviously weren’t as divided as Sunni and Shia in Iraq, but there was an eerie similarity. The eerie similarity was that in Iraq if you talk to Sunni soldiers or Shia policemen or Sunni tribal leaders, they would not say that they dislike or hate the Shia because of theological differences, even though there were theological differences. They wouldn’t say that they were fighting because of the political and policy differences such as divisions of revenue, oil revenue, or power sharing agreements. Instead, they were fighting because of a very real and immediate sense of harm from the other side. “The Shia had killed my nephew,” or “The Sunni killed my uncle.” In other words, the conflict had become the cause of the conflict, if that makes sense. The atrocities and the anger and the fury and the rage over the differences between them had metastasized to such a point that there was a continual cascade of atrocity and grievance. 

When I came back to the U.S. I was hearing more and more that when the left would describe its beef against the right or the right would describe its argument against the left, there were the policy differences over life or religious liberty or health care policy, but a lot of it was “Look what they did to Kavanaugh,” or “Look what they did to Covington Catholic,” or “There is a Bernie bro who tried to shoot up the Republican members of Congress.” Or on the left, you would say, “Look at this family separation. Look at the alt-right killing spree in El Paso. Look at the mass murder in Charleston.” You would see these events that actually occurred. They were actually horrible or actually bad, and they created a sense that this is what they are like or this is what their movement spawns. It created this sense of mutual grievance and anger that wasn’t so much rooted in “Well, I don’t like your tax rate proposal,” and much more rooted in the idea that “You’re bad, evil people, and I have to stop you.”

JASON: A lot of us have been glued to social media over the last few weeks surrounding the attack on the capitol and the election and the certification. We’re still trying to process what took place at the United States Capitol. In speaking to this kind of breakdown and seeing each other in light of the worst examples, you reference a 1999 paper by Cass Sunstein and argue that it helps explain American culture today. Can you summarize his argument for us and explain why it matters in these divided times?

DAVID: This is an incredibly important paper. I don’t usually say that about academic papers, but every now and then you run across one that really explains a lot about our world and a lot about our country. This is a paper from Cass Sunstein in 1999, and it’s called “The Law of Group Polarization.” The Law of Group Polarization says that when people of like-mind gather, they tend to become more extreme. This is something you see in life. For example, if a group of people get together who are Second Amendment activists and they start speaking together and they’re critiquing Joe Biden’s gun control proposals, by the time they finish speaking or deliberating with each other, they’re usually going to end up more committed to their position. When like-minded people get together and talk to each other, they get more committed to their position. 

Think about it like this: how many people have gone to a really good Bible study and left thinking, “I love Jesus less?” No, when you go and are around like-minded people and communicating with each other in a spirit of fellowship, it strengthens your convictions. So what ends up happening is that as Americans cluster and they wall off into these like-minded communities in a process called “the big sort” (its name is from a 2009 book of that title), we’re sorting ourselves into these like-minded communities. We’re insulating ourselves from thoughtful, opposing points of view.

So we’re becoming more radicalized, and we don’t even really realize it because it’s not like you’re sitting there thinking “I’m becoming more radical.” You’re just agreeing with everyone around you, and everyone around you seems so sensible. 

One of the interesting aspects of it is the way this whole process works. It can happen so completely that at the end of a deliberation, the entire group can move to become more radical than the most radical person was at the start of the deliberation. It’s a very powerful force that is making Americans more radical. You can even see this in some of the ideological data. It used to be that there was this big bell curve where the bulk of Americans were in the middle—the center right and the center left. Now what’s happening is that the bell curve is flattening, and the extreme edges, which used to be really small are getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.

JASON: What role do you think that social media has played in that? Obviously, this season where we have social media so prominently involved in most of our discussions, we see so many things play out—even breaking news happening on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. What role do you think that social media is playing into that polarization and tribalization?

DAVID: I think that social media is doing the opposite of perhaps what many of its founders intended. One of the goals of the folks who created social media, in addition of course to making money which is the reason most people start a company, was to bring people together. You could link with people who you hadn’t seen in years. You could link with people very closely and intimately that lived across the country from you. So there’s a version of the world in which you could say, “Oh, look at social media breaking down the barriers, because otherwise I just know the people in my neighborhood. Otherwise it would just be the folks in my church or the folks in my faculty that I belong to or my company that I work for. But thanks to social media, I can know everybody.” 

No, what ended up happening is social media allowed us to create bigger bubbles. There isn’t necessarily that much of a desire to engage with people who disagree with us. The desire is to engage with people who agree with us and to share the stories that reinforce our point of view and to use the extent we engage with the people who we disagree with not so much to learn from them but to own them or destroy them. In many ways, social media, which was intended for one thing, has become another thing. 

I do think we over-blame social media for our divisions. I’m not a historian of social media companies, but I’m pretty sure in 1861 Twitter was in its infancy. America had found a way to divide and kill each other way before social media, and the world found ways to divide and kill each other way before social media. Sometimes we end up blaming this amorphous entity—social media—for the problems that are really in our own hearts.

JASON: I think that is very common, especially in the technology spaces. We often blame the tools instead of taking the responsibility as human beings created in the image of God and bearing that role, that agency, that responsibility. We often off-shoot that and put that on these tools as if they are responsible for making us so polarized and tribalized as a nation. 

Many listeners are probably familiar with the increased debates over what’s called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and the claims of politically motivated censorship online. We saw this debate renewed with social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook banning the president from their services and even the removal of certain apps like Parler from Google App Store and Apple App Store. In the case of Parler, they ended up losing their hosting ability on Amazon Web Services. Can you give us a little background on what Section 230 is? You’re a lawyer, and you’ve spoken a lot to Section 230 and why you think it’s been so widely debated and served as the scapegoat for a lot of the activity in the polarization that we’re seeing online.

DAVID: One of the first things you have to understand is 99% of the people who confidently assert that they know what Section 230 is about either have no idea or are lying to you. It is one of the weirdest public debates I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s conducted on the basis as if history doesn’t exist, as if the text of the law itself does not exist. It’s the weirdest thing. So let me give you a very thumbnail sketch of the history. People will say things like “Section 230 is designed to ensure neutrality in social media moderation.” No, it’s not designed for that at all. Or “Section 230 is a special giveaway for social media.” No. But here’s the history. 

If you go back to the early days of the internet, there were these particular gateways to enter the internet. AOL was one for example. You’d get a disk in the mail, and you’d put it into your computer. And you’d connect to your modem that was actually your phone line. That would be your way into this very gated internet. AOL was one competitor. CompuServe was another. Prodigy was another. And that was basically it. That was how you got online.

A lot of people didn’t really know legally what to do with this new environment. So Prodigy and CompuServe ended up being subject to two different lawsuits. One of the services was sued when somebody posted on the service some information that the plaintiff believed was libelous—was intentionally false. The person sued not only the person who put the information online but also the internet service, saying that the internet service, by hosting this speech, was liable for the speech. So the court looked at it and said that no, the service does no moderation at all. It just lets anything come up. It’s not going to be responsible for the speech. They said, “Nope, the only person responsible is the person who posts it.” Case dismissed.

A couple of years later and another case came up, and this was a service that did moderate. It said, “No, we don’t want obscene speech. We don’t want racist speech, etc., etc.” And a person sued again saying, “I was libeled on this platform.” And in that case, the court said, “Well, because you moderate the user speech, it’s actually kind of your speech too, and you’re going to be liable.” Well, that was like an earthquake, because what that meant was if I run an internet company and have one of the early versions of a comment section or a chat room, I’ve basically got two choices. Anything goes—which could include porn, which could include incredibly racist speech, which could include communications that would border on bullying and harassment—or I’m liable for everything that’s on the platform. That meant you had a choice between a sewer or no platform at all. Well, this is not the way things are in life. If I run a classroom, for example, at a public university, and I say, “Okay, everyone in my class, you cannot curse in your public comments. You cannot say things that are racist in your public comments. And you have to stay on the topic of the class.” That moderation that I impose on that classroom does not then mean that with every student who stands up to speak, I’m speaking too. That makes no sense at all. Or let’s say I’m a town council and am having a town meeting, and I say, “You speak for three minutes. We’re going to ask you to stick to the topic of the meeting. We’re asking you not to curse or engage in racist speech.” That doesn’t then mean that every citizen who stands up at that town council meeting is giving government speech. It makes no sense. 

So these two cases together were going to kill a lot of free expression on the internet because who is going to create something that allows anybody to say anything? The only people who like to be on those kinds of platforms are some of the people who say some of the worst stuff. What happened was Congress stepped in with the Communications Decency Act. It’s called the Communications Decency Act for a reason. It said, “No, you can engage in good faith moderation, like limiting obscene speech and other forms of objectionable speech, and you’re not going to be liable. You’re not going to be liable for the speech on the platform.” This was like the rocket fuel for free speech online. It’s what allows Facebook to be formed. It’s what allows Twitter to be formed. It’s what allows a comment section to exist on a news article. It’s what allows you to post a restaurant review. It’s what allows Nextdoor to exist or Reddit or all of these places where people are used to communicating online because it allowed, for example, Facebook to say, “Hey, we don’t want any nudity on this platform or on Instagram. We don’t want nudity on Instagram because we want younger people to be able to use this platform.” 

Section 230 allows people to moderate content that they believe objectionable. That means that people are going to make controversial decisions. A platform is going to say yes to one kind of speech and no to another kind of speech. And that makes people mad. So they say, “I want to be able to say what I want to say, and I want the moderation policies of Facebook to be the policies that I want them to be. If they don’t do what I say, then what I want to do is repeal 230 or reform 230.” 

Anytime you hear somebody say “Repeal 230,” here’s exactly what you should say to them, especially if it’s a Christian. “So you want nudity on Facebook?” They would say “No,” but that’s what “Repeal 230” means. “Repeal 230” means that you cannot engage in moderation anymore without legal liability. The problem with that is people say, “I don’t like the decisions this private company has made. So I should either strip from them the ability to make these decisions or hand them over to the government,” which is another kind of Section 230 reform. In that circumstance, often with conservatives who say “Reform 230,” you say, “So do you want the Biden and Harris administration defining what Facebook’s moderation should be?” A lot of people say no. 

The reality is that private companies have their own speech rights. When you use a private company’s platform that you use for free, it’s like being invited into their home. They can tell you what the rules of the road are in their home. And you may not like the rules of the road, but you don’t have to be in that home. You can go to a different home with other rules. And this brings us to the Parler lawsuit. A lot of people look at the Parler lawsuit, when Amazon Web Services said, “We’re not going to allow you to use our cloud server hosting to put Parler out into the internet.” A lot of people are very worried about that because they think if Amazon can knock you off the internet because they don’t like your speech (which it can’t really knock people from the internet because Amazon is not the only way to get online), then we have a real problem because Amazon’s very liberal, but a lot of people want to engage in conservative speech. Does this mean conservatives are going to be suppressed? Don’t go there on this case. Do not use this case to go there with that argument. And I’m going to tell you why. 

Twitter is really good at providing perhaps the most surface possible analysis you can have for any given legal issue. Twitter is the worst at analyzing legal issues. Here’s the issue with Parler, and I’m going to read to you a section of Amazon’s brief in response to Parler’s lawsuit. “This case is not about suppressing speech or stifling viewpoints. It is not about a conspiracy to restrain trade. Instead, this case is about Parler’s demonstrated unwillingness and inability to remove from the servers of Amazon Web Services content that threatens the public safety, such as by inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens.” 

When you read the evidence presented, here’s what happened: Amazon many weeks ago went to Parler and said, “We are very concerned. There is speech on here that meets the definition of threats and this speech is staying up. You’re doing nothing about this speech.” Parler revealed that it lacked the capacity to deal with the volume of threats that were coming up on its platform. In fact, at one point it was backlogged, 26,000 reports of speech that should be stripped from the platform. In other words, not only was Parler hosting some of the most vile threats, it was indicating it didn’t even have the ability to police what was on its own platform. So Amazon, whose employee ranks are comprised of American citizens, did not want its corporate resources used to promote speech such as “Jack Dorsey will die a bloody death along with Mark Zuckerberg. It has been decided and plans are put in place. Remember the photographs inside your home while you slept? Yeah, that close. You will die a sudden death.”

They couldn’t get that stuff off. Why would Amazon host that information? A lot of people are looking at Parler as a free speech martyr. Parler is responsible for its total inability to control its own platform. Why would Amazon be obligated to host that? Why would you make an American citizen continue to host that speech? That makes no sense to me, especially in a conservative movement that just spent several years saying, “Hey, wait a minute, bakers shouldn’t have to custom design a cake to celebrate a gay wedding, or florists shouldn’t have to custom create floral arrangements to celebrate a gay wedding.” And then you’re going to turn around and say, “Well, Amazon, you have to host speech on your servers that says ‘Hang that n-word, ASAP.’” That’s what we’re talking about, so be super careful when you create free speech martyrs.

JASON: David, obviously you think that Section 230 is still a useful statute and shouldn’t be repealed. I know a lot of people are asking for reforms, and you’ve talked a little bit about some reform and what’s actually behind that. But do you think that Section 230 needs to be updated at all in light of the modern internet?

DAVID: I’m not going to say that Section 230 is some sort of divinely inspired statute, so I’m always open to legal reforms that could better advance fundamental First Amendment values, for example. But in most of the reform ideas that I have seen, you usually end up with something on the left. You’ll usually see people say things like,”We want social media to censor more speech.” You see more of that on the left. “We want social media to be stronger in censoring misinformation.” 

Conservatives worry about the current policies that Facebook or Twitter have—censoring too much. If they hand a lot of power to the government, they’ll see more speech taken down from online if more progressive or liberal governments are in power, which is typically what conservatives don’t want. So conservatives say, “We want less censorship online. We want more speech online.” 

We have these little experiments in other social media companies that censor less. We just talked about one of them: Parler. That is not a site that you want your kids on. And then there’s another one called Gab. Gab in some ways could be even worse. A lot of conservatives for these very short-term reasons are saying, “I want to be more free to speak.” And then when they create these environments where they do have more freedom, those places get scary. They get scary fast, so be careful what you ask for.

The other thing that I feel like I have to mention is that a lot of this desire to get social media to censor less isn’t being driven by people like your local pastor who is having their speech taken down because they’re proclaiming Jesus. A lot of it’s being driven by conservative trolls who spread disinformation and personal attacks online and are constantly skating on the edge of the terms of service of these platforms and sometimes lose their platform. Now, occasionally you’ll see somebody who’s engaging in basic pro-life speech and is punished. That’s very, very rare. As a general matter, the people who are getting banned from these platforms are some of the worst people you’ve ever met. How do we know this? They go to Gab and Parler and they turn those places into raw, open sewage. It’s not like when you go to Gab that all of a sudden a church meeting is breaking out. There might be Christians on Gab, but if you have a weak stomach, I would not go onto Gab. That’s one of the ways we can tell that what we’re talking about isn’t some sort of comprehensive shutdown of winsome, wonderful Christian speech. That’s not happening. What’s being shut down is trolling, misinformation, personal attack, blatantly racist behavior that then pops up again on these other places on the internet. You don’t want the whole internet to be like those places.

JASON: In many ways, Section 230 was created to encourage good faith, moderation. If you do remove Section 230, you end up losing that, and many of these places won’t moderate. Then it turns into a lot of sewage and really bad places that we wouldn’t want not only our kids to go to, but even adults to check out.

DAVID: Even though I’m a public figure who has to engage with the news, I don’t have a Gab account. I don’t have a Parler account. I don’t want to be exposed to that constant hatred. I have no interest in that. It’s just bad for the soul.

JASON: In your book you cast a vision about what it could look like to overcome or even reconcile some of these sharp divides in our culture. But while we still have really diverse views on crucial issues like politics and ethics and technology, how do you envision American society coming together or being able to talk to one another rather than simply seeing each other as avatars to go into battle with?

DAVID: In the book, I use the word tolerance, and hang with me for a minute because I know a lot of Christians are kind of tired of hearing the word tolerance, mainly because it’s been twisted around a lot in our culture. You’ve seen a lot of intolerance in the name of tolerance in secular culture.

I’ll give you a story to tell you what I mean by tolerance. This is from a pseudonymous writer by the name of Scott Alexander. He lives in a blue area of the country and talks to some of his progressive friends. And he says, “Are you tolerant?” And they said, “Yeah, I’m tolerant. I love all people regardless of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc..” Scott then responds by saying, “Well, what’s wrong with those people?” And they said, “What do you mean, ‘what’s wrong with them?’ Nothing is wrong with them.” Scott responds, “Then what are you tolerating?”

In other words, tolerance implies that there’s something you don’t like—that there’s something to tolerate, something that in other conditions you would reject. So tolerance does not mean affection. That’s how it’s often been misinterpreted. Tolerance means acceptance, often in spite of vices and flaws and problems. We have to rediscover the value of tolerance properly understood. We are in this together as a national family. We are going to have to tolerate things in each other that we dislike. We have to start with that basic thing. That’s not utopian. I’m not saying kumbaya. I’m not saying we’re going to all love each other. What I’m saying is, can’t we at least decide to tolerate each other across differences? 

In the absence of that basic value, it’s really hard for us to do anything else because it’s sort of a two step process. One, you have to decide to tolerate others. Then the second step is that there are policies that you can add that can facilitate that process, such as federalism—let California be California, let Tennessee be Tennessee. Or for example, free speech—defend the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself—religious liberty or due process. All of these things, when equally applied, apply to your opponents as well as to your friends. Free speech empowers the speech of your opponents. Due process prevents arbitrary punishment of your opponents. Religious liberty allows your opponents or the people who disagree with you to say things you believe to be false about religion. But these are values that also attach to yourself. 

Essentially, we have to rediscover tolerance and embrace pluralism because one side or the other is not going to grow so powerful that it can entirely crush the opposition. We are a very closely divided country. There is no way to unify that says “I will sweep the field and destroy my enemies.” The only way through is to rediscover the virtue of the past, where our founding fathers created a constitution that allows for widely divergent communities to live together in peace.

JASON: I think that’s really helpful counsel for us as an entire society, not just as Christians and the Church itself. 

As we close out our time today, are there any books that you might recommend as kind of a next step for listeners who want to dig a little bit deeper on some of these issues? Whether that’s on social media, technology, society, or Section 230, or even getting into some of these concepts of a proper understanding of tolerance and what that looks like.

DAVID: I think a great book for understanding tolerance and for learning how to grow up and live and function in a pluralistic society where there are widely divergent points of view about matters of eternal significance—not just matters of political significance—is The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. That book is just excellent. 

Also, Alienated America by Tim Carney does a really nice job of talking about how civil society has taken it on the chin in the United States of America and that we’ve lost a lot of the civic associations and church affiliations that have made Americans more emotionally and politically resilient and made Americans less likely to see politics in such catastrophic terms. 

And then the other one is a book called Our Kids by Robert Putnam. This book is fantastic. It’s showing how dysfunctional communities and generations of poverty and marginalization and problems of oppression can imprint themselves on children and can create an entire class of kids who are beginning life with disadvantages that are difficult to overcome as adolescents and as adults. It’s very powerful and poignant.

JASON: I think those are really helpful resources, and I highly recommend your new book, Divided We Fall

David, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today on WeeklyTech. I’m really grateful for your work and also your voice in the public square. It’s a very calm and collected voice often and someone that I think we can really seek to emulate in a lot of our conversations online.

DAVID: I appreciate it very much. It’s been a real privilege to join you.

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