Culture Friday: Free expression’s new gatekeepers

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, November 29th, 2019. Glad to have you along for this post-Thanksgiving edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Social media and high-tech companies are increasingly becoming the gatekeepers of free expression. Let’s listen to a brief clip from a speech by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He’s speaking at Georgetown University last month.

ZUCKERBERG: Today, we are in another moment of social tension. We face real issues that will take a long time to work through. In the face of these tensions, once again a popular impulse is to pull back from free expression. We’re at another cross-roads. We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.

EICHER: Zuckerberg’s comments came in response to pressure the social media giant is receiving over its decision to continue allowing political ads on its platform. He went on to say that his default position is that “when its not absolutely clear what to do, we should err on the side of greater expression.”

Twitter and Google, on the other hand, have decided to err on the side of restricting speech. Twitter announced several weeks ago that it won’t allow any political advertising. Google followed suit last Wednesday, saying it will no longer allow campaigns to “micro-target” advertisements to voters based on their political affiliations. They also said that, going forward, they won’t allow ads that make claims that are “demonstrably false.”

BASHAM: But, of course, as we’ve seen from all these platforms in the past, “demonstrably false” is in the eye of the beholder. Google has suppressed search results from pro-life groups, claiming they’re simply favoring the “most reliable sources.” That is to say, abortion-industry sources like NARAL and Planned Parenthood. And just this week Twitter suspended a conservative journalist for hate speech because he cited straightforward statistics about homicide rates among transgenders.

John Stonestreet joins us now for Culture Friday. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

John, good morning.


EICHER: Just to add some balance here to Zuckerberg’s words that seem more sympathetic to free expression, Facebook doesn’t have a great record as a free speech crusader when it comes to those issues. Pro-life and pro-family activists have complained that the platform has suppressed them in specific instances.

So, maybe an obvious question here: Do we have any reason to believe the tech giants won’t deal with political ads with the same one-sided approach they’ve taken with abortion and other social issues?

STONESTREET: No. Next question. [Laughter]

EICHER: I feel a little bit like the debate moderator who says, “Ok, well, five minutes to go here.”

STONESTREET: Well, is there five minutes of stuff worth to say here? I mean, no. There’s not. Everybody is driven in the way they do their work and the way they think about the issues of the world from their worldview. And the worldview that is dominating many of those that we would call secular elites is diametrically opposed. We’re at a point now where we’re not kind of presenting different facts. We’re presenting different interpretations of facts and basically the side that has the power levers are often saying that their interpretations of the facts are the facts. So that’s the confusion of worldview.

Your worldview is like a pair of glasses. More fundamentally it’s like a pair of contact lenses. I wear contacts. I forget that they’re there. And we forget that our worldview is there.

You only have to watch how many in the media cover religion and miss it so dramatically and don’t feel, really, the reason to even try. I mean, you can kind of think, for example, of Time Magazine’s person of the year last year, which is the harbingers of truth. In other words, we will take on this hard responsibility of fact checking everyone else except for ourselves. And so it’s a real blind spot and that’s the way worldview operates.

BASHAM: You know, John, something I thought was sort of funny about this is that most headlines on a Google news search are saying something along the lines of, “Republicans Blast Google for Stance on Political Advertising.” Yet both Republican and Democratic campaigns have made it clear they’re unhappy about the change. The DNC asked Google to reconsider. I think we’ve found the only topic both sides can agree on!

Seriously though, Republicans have likened it to voter suppression. Is that a fair characterization?

STONESTREET: Well, there’s no question that this is the new monopoly on information and on ideas. So, there’s not another way right now to get the message out.

And so, yeah, I think it is in a sense—and certainly information suppression. But I also think it’s vulnerable because you have, I think, a real sense in which—and after 2016, many across these power centers admitted that they’d missed most of the population. Or they missed a large segment of the population, had no idea they really existed. And I think that you’re seeing examples of that in 2020 or heading into 2020 as well, even on the Democratic side, specifically. So, for example, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is rising in the poll numbers. I saw a headline, you know, another one that pretended to be neutral but basically said Pete Buttigieg channels his inner Obama. You’re like, oh, that’s a loaded headline. But it was the same week at which Pete Buttigieg garnered, according to polls, zero support from black voters. Zero. And I think, for example, the Democratic platform, they oftentimes think that everyone agrees on everything. But you do not have an African-American segment that will be comfortable with a gay presidential candidate. It just won’t happen. And I think, again, that’s another example that they’re not as up to speed on the American people as they think they are, and that’s a real vulnerability. 

BASHAM: And now, John, I’d like to turn to some news associated with the biggest spending day of the year. 

We call it Black Friday because it puts retailers in the black. But Americans are facing record levels of credit card debt, so maybe we should we start calling red Friday. Yet surveys show most of us are still planning big shopping splurges. Millennials are the most comfortable with debt, with more than half saying they’re okay going deeper in debt if it means spreading some holiday cheer.

I’ll confess that while I wouldn’t want to take on new debt to buy gifts, I have been known to go a little overboard, especially for my kids. Any suggestions for we balance being responsible with our Christmas shopping without feeling like we’re not free to enjoy what God has given us to celebrate this time of year?

STONESTREET: Yeah, you know, have you ever seen that old clip of Bob Newhart who’s playing the role of the counselor and somebody comes into his office and says, “Hey, I’m struggling with this, what should I do?” And he just says, “Stop it.” So, yeah, I think with Black Friday we have to stop it. But let me give you an angle on this that I think drives this consumerism and new levels of debt, maybe we don’t often think about it. It’s the proliferation of having to do all of our holiday celebrations on social media.

I’m not against sharing it with friends and family. We’re going to be away from some of our family this Christmas season and it’s going to be great to be able to use Facebook to look at memories. But, you know, Pinterest plays a role that, you know, basically we end up comparing ourselves to others and our holiday doesn’t seem as happy as their holiday. And, man, why won’t my kids all wear matching Christmas pajamas and do a really clever lip sync that will go viral. Why didn’t I try this kind of cool way to do a do-it-yourself decoration? And it’s the new form of keeping up with the Joneses and it really distracts us from the sacredness of the preparation, the advent preparation. So I think one way is to get off social media, and I think another step is to recapture this ancient gift of the church, which is a different calendar. The advent calendar. And, you know, using this time for the sort of fasting, for the sort of preparation, repentance that advent requires. So, you know, there’s not a silver bullet for all of this, but I think those are things, disciplines that we’ve embraced in our household that help. They don’t make us perfect, but it does help.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, thanks so much!

STONESTREET: Thanks so much!

(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File) This March 29, 2018 file photo, shows logo for social media giant Facebook at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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