The right to freedom of speech is one of the essential rights under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The key function of freedom of speech in a democratic society is to achieve individual liberty by allowing ordinary citizens to participate freely in the spread of ideas and opinions to shift their culture and to help establish themselves as achievers in society. Freedom of speech is considered a fundamental human right. According to UNESCO:
Freedom of expression and information are pillars of a healthy democratic society and for social and economic growth, allowing for the free flow of ideas necessary for innovation and bolstering accountability and transparency.[ ]
Nevertheless, freedom of speech and expression may not be recognized as being absolute. There are common limitations or boundaries to freedom of speech, such as libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, classified information, copyright violations, the right to privacy, dignity, etc. Justifications for these limitations include the harm principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that: ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
In spite of the above mentioned, with the evolution of the digital age, application of the freedom of speech has become more controversial. To understand where the freedom of free expression ends and where the violation of the other fundamental human rights begins, as of right to life and dignity, is becoming more and more complicated, boundaries become blurry. A culture of haters and internet mobs is used as a weapon to crumble discussion among well informed, differently-minded people. Its logic today demands silence from those who are defending themselves from abuse or hate speech. Distorting the core logic of freedom of speech, as a pursuit of the lofty Enlightenment value, turning it into a meaningless race of opinions, following the rule of “who is louder, is right”.
Multiple platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram allow people to fully enjoy their freedom of self-expression. Literally anyone who has Internet access and knows how to type can share his/her ideas with the world. But as the technical barriers have dropped, the social barriers seem to have increased.
According to Balkin (2004), ‘The digital revolution makes possible widespread cultural participation and interaction that previously could not have existed on the same scale’, and it is an absolutely positive trend.[ ]
On the other hand, mass media today establishes limits to what goes on their online platforms and what does not. Mass media are owned and controlled by relatively few people, and their ownership gives this small group enormous power to shape public discourse and public debate. Thus, creating new opportunities for limiting and controlling cultural participation and interaction, for instance, the case of Nick Ut’s photo of the naked Vietnamese children running from an attack during the war was posted on Facebook. Facebook removed the photo because it violated its regulations, yet when people demanded it back and wanted to view the photo, Facebook put the image back. This tendency is extremely dangerous, as the values that are driving the companies are mostly commercial and monetized, as an increase in their user base brings them profits.
Let us take a look at one of the most successful enterprises in the digital world. Facebook: 2.3 billion users writing in more than 100 languages; almost $17bn in revenue in just the fourth quarter of 2018; almost $59bn in revenue for all of 2018; a market capitalization of $484bn in January 2019. All this in a mere 15 years. Those are stunning numbers. Facebook has accumulated much power, but with great power should come great responsibility. Not in this case, it seems that Mr. Zuckerberg is in complete denial of its influence on the media and society (his speech info). His company hosts “networks of people” but they interact on his terms, managed by his rules and algorithms. His company also employs powerful lobbyists, retired politicians, and former journalists to execute his will in Washington, Brussels, New Delhi, Brasilia, Canberra, Ottawa, Dublin, and London. His staff actively helped nationalist leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Rodrigo Duterte assume power.
According to Mr. Zuckenberg: “ As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.” This is a false and naive statement “networks of people” haven’t replaced “traditional hierarchies”, people are not empowered, they are blinded and distracted from real and urgent issues, like the networks of people fleeing Western Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh because “traditional hierarchies” – Myanmar’s Buddhist clerisy and the military junta – declared a campaign of genocide against them using the very features of Facebook that are supposed to liberate the world.
Moreover, social media has become a very important factor in political crusades. Leaders and their supporters always post their perspectives on Facebook and Twitter. Each political party has its very own pages, from which it communicates publicity. Although plenty of news sources exist today, people prefer Facebook or Twitter to genuine news or political sites. Social media organizes their own polls and surveys during election campaigns, results of polls impact elections to a great extent.
Social media has become one more tool of social targeting, politicians use it to reach their audience through advertisements and news stories which can be genuine or fake. Some fake sites exist only to present misleading content stories, it is the favourable places for internet trolls’ activity. One of the concealed powers that work via online media is confirmation bias. It is normal for individuals to encircle themselves with others of like personality. This is genuine both on the web and offline. Via social media users, this can make the deception that everyone thinks a similar way. According to Benjamin Franklin, “ If everyone’s thinking alike then NO ONE is thinking.”
The use of political propaganda and manipulation through social media was a characteristic feature of Trump’s fight for presidency. In 2016 hailing himself as “modern-day presidential,” Trump’s success and popularity is largely due to his internet presence. In the months leading up to the presidential election, it was reported that “as much as 45% of Trump’s campaign budget in a given month was devoted to digital outreach and research”. This funding was primarily spent on surveys and voter identification, used towards developing one of the most robust assortments of political Big Data in America. Bloomberg has cited the value of Trump’s voter information database at as much as $100 million, leading Trump’s campaign digital director to surmise that the information allowed the Trump administration to “own the future of the Republican Party”. This collection of information does not include the more provocative – and therefore more “shareable” aspect of Trump’s online candidacy, however: his use of social media to spread influence in the form of attack ads and fake news. Trump’s social media presence is perhaps the single most important aspect of his candidacy.
On Facebook alone, Pro-Trump advocates purchased at least $100,000 worth of advertisements prior to the November election. A former Facebook official estimates that this was enough to reach at least 126 million Americans. Facebook itself willingly offers to political campaigns its own sales staff, who are trained to “assist campaigns in spreading their messages, increasing engagement and getting immediate feedback on how they are performing”. Trump utilized this highly effective service to maximize his Facebook presence, while the Clinton campaign did not seek the assistance of Facebook officials, instead opting to rely upon her own social media experts. Not only is Trump more engaged online then, but he is more tactical, using every opportunity to gain an edge that other, more traditional candidates eschew.
The Internet is slowly turning into a landfill full of garbage. Instead of following the real-life agenda and trying to form their own opinions, based on facts and arguments, people are absorbed and disoriented by tons of false and biased data. It is sort of a cacophony of words. Too many people are expressing their views at the same time.
People have access to more knowledge than ever in history, yet they cannot argue or debate as adults. People don’t suppress opponents’ ideas because they are confident in their own. They suppress opponents’ ideas because they have more confidence in the argument of force than in the force of their arguments. What we are witnessing now is a sort of moral and intellectual degradation. People who are incapable of properly expressing their own thoughts, for the reason of ignorance, ill-behavior, lack of cultural or artistic appreciation are doing it online without any limits and regulations.
Expressions of racial, religious or sexist hatred that are posted on the Internet mixed with lack of regulation and actual punishment system have created a culture of haters, who can freely humiliate, disrespect, offend anyone, staying anonymous. As well as a phenomenon of internet mobs or online shaming. When a person posts something online and anyone can freely reply, it is called counter-speech. Nevertheless, it depends on how the reply is sent and perceived because it can lead to other replies thus creating an internet mob. Which being not controlled is undermining the real value and purpose of the argument- truth seeking- and, is destroying reason and deliberation, allowing polarization, hatred, intolerance, and bigotry to thrive.
However it would be unfair not to mention that media platforms tried to solve the issue of mass media content, according to Rosen (2016),” in an effort to deal with this volume of content, the companies moved away from their initial decider models, where individual content reviewers would decide whether flagged content violated their user policies, toward a more algorithmic review” therefore, making computers do the editorial work. Unfortunately, this solution has many drawbacks. For instance, racist news that is spread on the web becomes a “glitch” in the system because computers unlike humans can’t differ right from wrong.
In the meanwhile, Nazis, racists, homophobes, bullies, xenophobes, and misogynists are prospering, protected by an artificially created shield of freedom of speech right. Results of their actions have dangerous social and political impact.
Moreover, the lives of ordinary people have been ruined, literally in a matter of seconds, by false accusations on social media. I’m talking about truly innocent people, who were misidentified or misrepresented, only to have the internet mob grab their metaphorical pitchforks and chase after them. The goal of online shaming is to destroy the person.
The case of Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Arkansas, is a pure Kafkaesque social media nightmare. In 2017, Quinn was wrongly identified as a tiki torch-carrying Nazi who marched in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. A counter-protester had posted a photo on social media of a man with a beard (Quinn has a beard) wearing a T-shirt (he sometimes wears T-shirts) that said “Arkansas Engineering.” Quinn’s name was attached to the bearded man in the photo. The only problem is: Quinn is not a Nazi—and at the time of the rally, he was home in Arkansas watching a nature documentary with his wife. Unaware that an internet mob had already formed against him, Quinn received a concerned phone call from a member of the university relations office—his entire ethical credibility was put on the line because of social media mislabeling, and he had to defend it.
As a result, Quinn received Twitter and email threats aimed at him and his wife. The university received calls and emails demanding that they fire Quinn. His home address was also tweeted out, causing safety concerns and forcing Quinn and his wife to hide out at a friend’s house. In an ironic twist, the attacks were so vicious that the real tiki torch-carrying Nazi came forward and expressed his guilt that the wrath of social media had been directed at Quinn, a man who simply wanted a quiet evening at home with his wife watching a nature documentary. This is only one of the numerous examples.
Social media is a powerful weapon and nobody is accountable. Protected by anonymity, perverted version of free speech rights and little if not no consequences for their actions people are emboldened. Add to that a lack of empathy for the target and you’ve got a recipe for an internet mob justice disaster. All social media with their “likes” and “followers” are designed to manipulate people’s desire for approval, even if it’s at the expense of a wrongly accused person.
Somebody might argue that the Internet is an open market of ideas and anyone should be allowed to use it according to the laws of free-market and ideals of liberal democracy. What is good morally, will win in the competition of unmoderated ideas and transparent public discourse (which again with anonymity as an option is very difficult to call transparent) and the truth will prevail. But not to forget, real marketplaces actually require a lot of regulation. There are anti-monopoly rules, there are interest rate fixes and, artificial currency pegs, taxes; tariffs and sanctions as a form of punishment, etc.
The recent history of fighting for freedom of speech has gone from something noble – striving for the right to publish works that were banned or censored, and speaking up against the values leveraged by the powerful to maintain control – to attacking the weak and persecuted, as well as to manipulate the crowd, gullible enough to believe that everything on Internet is genuine and truthful. Tension created by media around the most sensitive issues of the 21st century as migration, terrorism, Islam, climate change, etc., is igniting people’s aggression, intolerance, and nationalism.
Europe is witnessing the right-wing nationalist movements spreading: Italy ( Matteo Salvini and his right-wing League party), Germany ( the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the federal parliament, it has pushed for strict anti-immigration policies, tapped into anxieties over the influence of Islam and broken decades-old anti-Nazi taboos), Spain (the far-right Vox party), Austria (The Freedom Party (FPÖ) ), France ( Marine Le Pen and the National Front) and etc.
The digital era has brought technology which increased the speed and breadth of knowledge turnover within the economy and society. According to evolutionary theory, the sustainability of our society relies on that. Although it is impossible to run away from reality, we have to be able to regulate it, otherwise, it can put everything upside down, as it has happened to freedom of speech or expression, it was distorted, twisted,corrupted and abused by people who were smart enough to find the way to control narrow-minded, anti-social, gullible, paranoid masses and to be able to use them to silence and harm their rivals and it seems that nobody cares if innocent individuals, families, minorities or even nations get in the way.