The PEN Pod: On Our Gala, Free Speech in Higher Ed, and Facebook Algorithms with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” This week, we spoke with Suzanne about PEN’s decision to hold this year’s Literary Gala in person, a university’s cancellation of a professor’s invited talk after protests against his past criticism of diversity initiatives, and how a whistleblower’s testimony has shed new light on Facebook’s algorithms. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 26:35 mark).
On the 2021 PEN America Literary Gala In Person
“This is a beloved event that we’ve put on for many years. It’s a big gathering of writers, readers, their allies, PEN America’s supporters—and it really energizes our whole advocacy agenda and community in ways that last year-round. . . . People felt great about being out together, people saw folks they hadn’t connected with in 18 months or more, and I feel, for our campaign on behalf of our Iranian writers who we’re honoring this year, and for all of our work, that having this energized—almost electrified—constituency, is really essential for us.
“Writers play a role in helping the collective society process trauma, and they do that, most through the written word, but part of what nurtures the writing community are in-person gatherings, whether it’s small readings, writers’ groups, book groups, and big-scale connections as well as through things like our PEN World Voices Festival, our Literary Awards, and the Gala. So nurturing the community in that way, creating these opportunities to get together, we see as part of our role at PEN America, and we were glad to be able to do that this year.”
On Campus Talks Being Canceled for a Speaker’s Views
“What we encourage is that there should be due diligence ahead of time to really understand what the person stands for, what kind of views they’re going to propound, and that decisions should be made with due consideration. Once the decision is made though, I do find it troubling for the invitation to be rescinded under pressure.
“Any time there’s a capitulation to a group of people who are protesting, it sets a precedent, and the question I ask is, what’s the next group that’s going to come around and say, ‘We want to de-platform this person’? And maybe that’s going to be somebody that I agree with, and I think has said absolutely nothing wrong, and so I generally think universities need to stick to their guns in these instances.”
On the Whistleblower Testimony Shedding New Light on Facebook Algorithms
“This fundamental algorithmic logic is engagement-based, and it’s not that it singles out the outrageous or incendiary. . . . It is a byproduct of being based off of that which we as human beings engage with the most, that which is most compelling to us. It turns out, a lot of the time and for a lot of us, it’s some pretty negative, nasty stuff, so it almost takes that human impulse, and through the work of the algorithm, just reinforces and intensifies it.
“I recognize also, when I go around the world and meet with writers. . . [they] told us that Facebook is a primary platform for them to publish, because they don’t have all the online outlets that we have here in English, and so they share their poems and short stories on Facebook, and it’s essential for them—so I think we can’t lose sight of the value of the platform, and the question is how to much more effectively throttle back that which is truly noxious, pernicious, and eating away at our society. Everyone talks about regulation—there’s sort of this ostensible consensus about regulation. The truth, of course, is no one knows exactly what that means, and what regulations will really get this under control.
“I think it ultimately comes down to Mark Zuckerberg having to make a different calculus and having to decide that they’re going to sacrifice profit, and they’re going to dial back this algorithm, and reshape it somehow, so that yes, engagement is a factor, but when it comes to some of this really pernicious content, that the imperative of deplatforming that. . . overrides the counter impulse to just let it run free because it’s ‘engagement at all costs.’”