Free Marketplace of Bad Ideas

Most people usually lament and fear the fact that technology is now making it easier than ever to spread hurtful ideas. From shaming someone into suicide on Facebook to recruiting jihadists on Youtube, there are certainly plenty of examples of the negative implications of social media. But is it possible that in another sense, this will prove to be the ultimate test, and hopefully vindication, of a free Marketplace of Ideas.

Now that I am a Thirty something, I am officially always behind on the latest tech trend. So I had never heard of Yik Yak until this podcast. If you have not heard of it before, basically Yik Yak is an anonymous  message board which allows people to message everyone around them. It was originally designed for college campuses so that people could “create conversations and build communities without prerequisites such as prior relationships or connections” said one of the founders, Tyler Droll.

It has rapidly grown in popularity and has sparked controversy in at least one place, Colgate University. On the one hand this story is horrible and highlights how an anonymous voice can be used in the most mean spirited way because there is no fear of retribution. However, as is pointed out in the clip above, that voice has always been there. The full podcast goes into detail about how minority students had always felt excluded on the campus, Yik Yak just made it explicit. Though that seems horrible, it is now something that can be dealt with. Smoking always caused cancer, but until you have proof you can’t start a campaign against it. Children have always been bullied, but until social media gave bullies the anonymity they needed to be more direct, it was hard to see how widespread and dangerous the problem was, now we can take steps to stop it.

By definition, most minority views like racism or homophobia, are only held by a minority of people. This means that the majority probably doesn’t see the harm it is causing. Social media gives that minority a large enough voice that they are noticed by the majority. After that, it is our responsibility to act. Not by banning racists speech but by having a social conversation and setting up societal norms which frown on that kind of speech and convince people to give it up.

Until recently, the relative prevalence of radical Muslims in British communities was probably not widely acknowledged. The rise of ISIS and movement of British citizens to support them has highlighted the fact. Now the U.K. has the opportunity to find out what is causing this trend and work to change it.

How we deal with problems like is the ultimate test of a free society. Are we willing to let “bad ideas” be voiced so that public scrutiny can destroy them or do we ban them from the beginning for fear that the ideas will take root and spread?

Download the whole episode from their website or from iTunes.

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