March 9, 2021

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Social Media and Radical Freedom of Speech

The Internet and its functionalities, like email and the World Wide Web, were created by academic researchers. Although the military paid for a lot of it, there was little attention paid to security and none at all to control of content. The academics built an extremely democratic structure. Anybody could create a web site and put anything they wanted on it. You didn’t need to be a public figure, or to persuade a publisher to spend money promulgating your ideas, or to own a TV station. If you had someone’s email address, no matter who it was and who you were, you could send them a message (you might not get an answer, but still). Radical freedom of speech was not only theoretical, it was real.

This appealed to me powerfully. Back in the US, I regularly wrote letters to the editor of my local paper, and sometimes they published them and sometimes not. They didn’t have to tell me why. Sometimes they even edited the ones they did print. During one of Israel’s wars I was interviewed by a TV station as someone who had family here. A half-hour interview was edited into a 15 or 30 second sound bite about my concern for my kids. The whole interview consisted of me trying to explain Israel’s right of self-defense while the reporter tried to get me to express fear or anger, the contents of a good sound bite. I tried to produce a radio program for the local public radio station (don’t laugh). They were not interested. They also had a deal where you could get several short spots broadcast in return for a modest contribution. My spots, which mentioned the number of Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorism (this was during the Second Intifada), were not acceptable; they wouldn’t take my money.

Once I even got my wife in trouble when I wrote an article for the Hadassah bulletin, of which she was the editor. The chapter president told her in no uncertain terms that this would never happen again. Apparently the woman’s tolerance didn’t extend to opposition to the “two-state solution.”

I hate it when someone tells me to shut up. So I loved the internet, which allowed me to write whatever I wanted in my blog. Nobody could shut me up. Getting people to read it was another story, but I loved the feeling that anyone in the world could hear what I had to say. All they had to do was click.

In 2004, Facebook was founded and in the next few years social media took off. Facebook soon outpaced Myspace and other competitors. Reddit appeared in 2005, Twitter in 2006. Numerous others followed. Social media got an almost incomprehensible number of people online (Facebook has 2.7 billion monthly active users), making it the most powerful tool for the manipulation of human consciousness ever invented.

But social media has diverged from the ideal of total information democracy. Commercial enterprises exist by selling something, and in this case it’s ads and personal information. In order to do this, they have developed secret algorithms that determine who communicates with whom and who sees what content. Still, the megaphone that  it gives to users – private individuals, businesses, political groups, and governments – is incredibly powerful.

Naturally, there has been a reaction. Some of the content is evil; false information, incitement to murder, hate, and harassment are rife. Of course there is no agreement on which content that is. There is a public clamor to “do something” about the misuse of social media. But the scale of the enterprise is far too large to allow for human moderation of content without destroying spontaneity. In any event, even after-the-fact moderation has proven to be unhelpful with the extremely controversial issues that are discussed. A statement like “’transgender women’ are not women” or a reference to “Islamic terrorism” will be reported as hate speech, and may or may not be allowed. The idea of “community standards” is relative to the community that is making the decisions.

An even worse expedient is the use of artificial intelligence to vet content before publication. Such algorithms are not intelligent enough to distinguish between discussion of hateful ideas and their expression – in logical terms, the distinction between mention and use – not to mention satire.

I use an emailing service to send my blog to subscribers. Recently I tried to distribute a relatively mild one and found it blocked by a program the service had activated (stupidly called “Omnivore,” which of course means that it eats everything). Maybe Omnivore didn’t like that I had referred to “Islamic antisemitism” and “Nazi Jew-hatred,” but it didn’t tell me, and it ate my emails. Rather than wait for a human to get around to evaluating my appeal, I switched to another service (which has its own problems).

Facebook has recently implemented “fact check” posts, which present what they feel are unbiased responses to controversial statements. This is probably the least damaging way to respond to objections against specific content, but it isn’t an answer for hate speech, incitement, or harassment.

Probably the best approach would be to force users of social media to make their identities public, to make them take responsibility for their own speech. It certainly won’t work to appoint more human or robot commissars. Freedom of speech isn’t the problem. Anonymity is. Facebook posts calling for fires in crowded theaters should have the same penalties as live speech or ink-printed threats. What’s hard about that?

One of the interesting aspects of social media is how it has facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories. Sometimes there are conspiracies: JFK was not murdered by a lone wacko and Epstein didn’t kill himself. But some theories are almost certainly false: we know who was responsible for 9/11, and like Luca Brasi, he “sleeps with the fishes.” Other theories are outlandish and inconsistent enough that they can only be called crazy, like the assertions that the Moon landings were fake (please don’t write to me if you believe this). And this article about “Pizzagate” – despite its tendentious attempt to attribute guilt to the Trump campaign – is fascinating. Nothing has helped the spread of these theories more than the internet, and in particular, social media.

Because social media is so powerful, it has become a weapon of psychological warfare, wielded by operatives associated with nations, armies, spy agencies, political parties, and organizations of every kind. A combination of human agents and bot networks can be used to insert disruptive content into social media and nurture its growth and spread. It’s an easy, safe, and relatively cheap way to attack an adversary, whether a political opponent or a country. I’m convinced that one or more foreign actors has been using these methods to increase extremism (of both the Right and the Left) in America, as well as to create anger, dissention, and, ultimately, instability that can be exploited. And that isn’t a crazy conspiracy theory.

All of this has made the ideal of radical freedom of speech less attainable (but radical speech ubiquitous). Both the use of the internet for malign purposes as well as the strategies adopted to prevent that have made it a less free and less democratic place.

But it is still almost the only way that a “nobody” with something to say can succeed in getting their point of view before the public. And in these days when the phenomenon of “canceling” opinions that don’t agree with the prevailing ideology seems to be peaking, it is essential to protect the channels of free expression.

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