One of the most critical freedoms in any democracy is the freedom of speech. The freedom of speech enables individuals to express themselves, relate with others through communication, access trading opportunities using online platforms (ex.ebay, amazon…etc), receive and disseminate information (Freedom House, 2018). According to the dictionary, the freedom of speech means the legal right to express one’s opinions freely (Merriam-Webster, 2018)
This right is critical in promoting democracy since it facilitates citizens to enjoy other freedoms and participate in governance through civic engagement (Restrepo, 2013). Freedom of Speech is commonly associated with the proper functioning of society and the balance between stability and social change (Francisquini, 2015). Similarly, the freedom of speech enables the media to fulfil its role in promoting democracies. However, the freedom of speech is not absolute since a person can only exercise their freedom of expression as long as they do not infringe on the rights of other citizens or engage in criminal activities (Joyce, 2015). Today, the Internet has created new forums that citizens can utilize to express their opinions, receive information, and contribute to governance.
Therefore, the Internet can be used to promote freedom of speech and democracy even though online free speech has harmful outcomes that threaten democracy. For instance, the dissemination of pornographic materials to children and cyber-attacks threaten democracy by disrupting the regulations among society and creates riots (Jørgensen, 2001) but with the help of some form of regulations, they can ensure that the right to freedom of speech can be utilized to promote the harmony of a nation (Jørgensen, 2001). This paper will mainly be focused on how online free speech strengthens democracy since it enhances access to information, gives citizens a chance to express their opinions, and contributes to governance in various ways.
Freedom of speech allows for instant communications whenever and wherever, online freedom of speech emphasizes that aspect by providing a broader platform for the society (Jørgensen, 2001). As Restrepo (2013) notes, a democracy cannot flourish without the freedom of speech and the freedom of speech cannot exist in the absence of democracy. Media plays critical roles in promoting democracy. It is its responsibility to collect and broadcast information to citizens, act as the people’s watchdog, and educate the citizens about various political and social issues that affect them (Restrepo, 2013). Therefore, the media promotes the well-being of the citizens in a nation. Now, citizens have access to limitless information and new pieces of knowledge.
The Internet has made it possible for people to obtain information about events as they happen through social platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Opinions are being exchanged and discussed, through the freedom of speech on the Internet. Moreover, freedom of speech and real-time information is associated with business opportunities; innovation, for example, is a crucial aspect of business success, innovation requires diversity of thought and action which freedom of speech on the Internet can deliver (Free House, 2018), people can take advantage of these to improve their living standards.
Another aspect of the Internet that has promoted the freedom of speech is instant messaging (Jørgensen, 2001). The Internet has affected the way people socialize. The introduction of social media networks has brought new ways for people to meet and discuss issues that affect them. Platforms such as blogs enable citizens to acquire elaborate information about governance, economic and social issues, and almost everyone from every corner of the world is able to join. Subsequently, online free speech can be used in positive ways to promote freedom of speech (Joyce, 2015), which helps improves the engagement and communications among citizens in a democracy.
Freedom of speech also encourages and promotes citizen’s participation in governance.
Since everyone can speak freely of their minds, there can be potentially useful ideas and opinions being generated among the citizens (Jørgensen, 2001). These ideas can be transported using online platforms for political discussions during the electioneering period and other times when citizens have an issue to raise (Restrepo, 2013). People can now discuss governance matters such as policies and laws that affect the nation (Joyce, 2015) which allows citizens to engage in political talks whenever they wish. Millions of citizens can actively participate in an online political debate, something they could not do in the traditional setting.
According to Francisquini (2015), some acts must be protected (by free speech) because it would generate better outcomes than would be the case if they were subjected to restriction. Also, people can give their opinion without fearing that they will not be listened to because of their age, ethnicity or economic class because of the anonymity. Thus, the Internet has broken down the political, social and economic barriers that prevented people from engaging with each other constructively (Francisquini, 2015). Online freedom of speech can be utilized to carry out political campaigns.
During the electioneering period, citizens and politicians use the Internet to send out political messages to each other. Likewise, citizens can use the Internet to hold their government accountable. They can also raise concern about issues such as environmental pollution and government policies that have a negative impact on society. One could say that freedom of speech online is providing a convenient and instant communication link between the government and its people to send information and to receive feedback, (Francisquini, 2015) this link is also protected by the freedom of speech to prevent government interference.
Today, some people misuse freedom of speech to propagate crimes such as terrorism, false advertisement and availing pornography to children; these are types of free speech where people intentionally causing harm to another (Restrepo, 2013). Likewise, online free speech can be used to spread ethnic and racial hate (Restrepo, 2013). When this happens, online free speech is used to mobilize people for the wrong purpose. Inciting people against a given community can result in genocides.
For instance, Facebook has been blamed for the mass killings in Myanmar (The Guardian, 2018). Democracy aims at promoting the well-being of every individual in the society (Restrepo, 2013). Acts that harm one person or the whole society put democracy at risk. In this case, it is vital for the government to establish laws and regulations to set limits to online free speech (Jørgensen, 2001). It is essential for the government to come up with new laws to set limits to online free speech since the laws used in controlling offline freedom of expression may not be applicable for online free speech (Jørgensen, 2001).
Similarly, Internet service providers should establish private laws to monitor their sites and protect users from harm. In short, freedom of speech cannot be suppressed unless it is reasonable to believe that serious and imminent evil is about to occur (Strum, 2016).
Lastly, online free speech promotes media freedom; this is utterly important for shaping fundamental processes and protect citizens from bad political actors (Gillanders, 2018). Today, the media can utilize the Internet to broadcast information across the world instantaneously (Francisquini, 2015).
The Internet provides a cheaper means of broadcasting information since it is less expensive than any other means of broadcasting information (Joyce, 2015). Again, the information broadcasted through the Internet can be accessed by citizens any time and in any place, even places where radio and TV signals cannot reach. Furthermore, the Internet is critical to the media in countries under authoritarian leaders such as China and Cuba (Kalathil and Boas, 2001).
Such states violate media freedom and keep journalists from fulfilling their duties effectively. In such cases, journalists can establish online stations that enable them to reach their audience (Francisquini, 2015). Governments cannot entirely control the broadcasting of information through the Internet. For instance, the government has the power to shut down offline TV and Radio stations but cannot do the same with online stations (Jørgensen, 2001) which allowed more citizens to express online more frequently than TV and Radio stations.
Moreover, the generation today utilizes online platforms far higher than they utilize TV, Radio stations and other traditional media sources, this resulted in the online platforms to have the biggest audience and users which also made it very difficult to shut down (Jezard, 2018) Thus, the Internet promotes freedom of speech more effectively than traditional media and enhances democracy.
In summary, the Internet has led to the freedom of speech which promotes democracy. The use of online platforms enable people to express their opinions freely, access information quickly, spread it, and meet online to discuss issues that affect them. Moreover, online free speech enables citizens to contribute to governance as well as their problems, and express their opinions.
Online free speech can be utilized by the media to fulfil its role in a democracy and to promote media freedom especially in authoritarian regimes that suppress them (Jørgensen, 2001). However, online free speech can be harmful if it is abused. Problems such as cyberbullying, false advertisement and availing pornography to children have adverse effects on democracy (Restrepo, 2013). Therefore, online free expression should be regulated by the government and Internet service providers to protect democracy when it’s reasonable to do so (Strum, 2016).
Overall Freedom of speech on the internet not only promotes and secures democracy but also builds a more instant communication link between citizens and the government and a better society.