Free speech in the internet age

By Areeq Chowdhury.

The concept of free speech is central to a lot of my work thinking about how we should regulate against the ills of social media. Disinformation, deepfakes, and online abuse are a few of the areas I’ve thought a lot about in recent years. They all represent issues where free speech and public safety coincide. Proponents for action and regulation cite the need to stem the rise of hate and to protect the mental health of vulnerable people. Opponents argue that to take such actions would infringe upon the principle of free speech and have caricatured this phenomenon as ‘political correctness’ or ‘cancel culture’. As an anti-racist campaigner, the concept of ‘political correctness’ is something which has irked me for a number of years. The most prominent opponents of ‘political correctness’ rarely speak about free speech in its truest form which is the freedom to speak truth to power, but as the freedom to dehumanise the oppressed. This dehumanisation is reduced by these opponents as being about ‘offence’. To be frank, public debate on the subject is incredibly poor.

A couple of years ago, I was invited onto the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, to contribute some thoughts on the topic. It was in relation to a study examining how in tune politicians are with the electorate. Part of the study spoke of the “perceived over-extension of political correctness, which many believe has suppressed the celebration of British values and Christian identity, in favour of the needs of minority groups”. During a live media interview, you generally have about one uninterrupted minute to get your point across, so having a soundbite ready can be super useful. I was ready with mine. Through nerves and my brain telling me not to, I managed to push out the words “freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can simply say whatever the f*ck you want about something without their being consequences”. As I hoped, Emily Maitlis, the interviewer, interrupted to apologise to viewers for my language and, at the same time, helped illustrate my point. You can watch this exchange here. As I saw it then and see it now, the term ‘political correctness’ can be rewritten as ‘basic respect for others’. Instead it’s used as a critical term by those who believe their free speech is being ‘suppressed’ in order to cater for other people’s feelings and out of fear of being publicly criticised as a bigot. However, free speech has never meant freedom from criticism no matter how harsh the critique may be.

The recent Harper’s Magazine letter, signed by some of the most respected writers in the world, has been described as a rebuttal of the so-called ‘cancel culture’. Cancel culture is a poorly defined concept which originated amongst young people as a mildly humorous way to vocalise disappointment in a famous person. To ‘cancel’ someone is to no longer support them. The earliest example I can think of where this term was popularly used was against the singer Robin Thicke because of the lyrics in his song ‘Blurred Lines’. Since then, the term has evolved into one which generally means not giving money to or not working with someone who has said or done something deeply distasteful, disrespectful, or illegal. A recent example of someone being ‘cancelled’ was the British historian, David Starkey, who in an interview argued that slavery could not be genocide as there are “so many damn blacks” in the UK and Africa. Following these comments, he was dropped by the publisher, HarperCollins, and removed as a Visiting Professor at Canterbury Christ Church University.

This debate is happening on a far smaller scale every minute of every day on social media. When faced with abuse, social media users are encouraged to report posts to the platform owners who are then expected to moderate or remove this content. So who is right? Those calling for action or those who want consequence-free speech? I won’t pretend to be able to answer this question – the truth is that nobody can. This essay will instead discuss some of the key themes in the debate and set out my current thinking on the subject. It covers the historical view of free speech, the ‘N-word’, cyber-libertarianism, online abuse, cancel culture, and more.

How have we approached free speech historically?

I hate talking about race. Unfortunately, it is still an issue which merits conversation in virtually every public policy issue. In the debate on free speech, it’s something we should address from the outset. Open a new tab and Google ‘philosophers on free speech’. You’ll be presented with a curated list of 20 preeminent White philosophers. It’s almost as if Black and Brown philosophers do not exist (they do). Is this important? Of course, because everyone’s outlook and thinking on the world is shaped entirely by our own experiences. This experience includes who we read and how we read them. That’s not to say for a moment that we should not read or respect these White philosophers. They are some of the greatest thinkers to have walked this earth. The one I am most familiar with and read the most of is John Stuart Mill. His works are core reading for any student of philosophy or politics. His work underpins much contemporary thinking on liberty and freedom, however he was also someone who wrote often of ‘barbarous’ civilisations and helped justify the subjugation of Black and Brown people under the British Empire. He is also the go-to philosopher for advocates of consequence-free speech. Would contemporary thinkers, particularly those from minoritised communities, stand up for the likes of David Starkey to so easily maintain their positions as elite and powerful members of society? I am not so sure.

Free speech philosophers

My outlook on this issue is shaped by my own experiences. Do I think defending the rights of the powerful to degrade and dehumanise people of my complexion and faith is conducive to a better society or do I think we should strive for something better? The reality is that many people from oppressed groups are cancelled from the moment of conception. They will struggle to live freely throughout their lives. They will need to work harder to excel at school and in the workplace. They will have to learn to temper their opinions and shoulder abuse in order to live a quiet life. Some of the most prominent Black and Brown free thinkers were assassinated. If we accept the notion of cancel culture, the victims are not generally the likes of those who signed the Harper’s Magazine letter.

So, when we approach this issue of free speech today we should consider the whole range of voices on the subject, particularly those of oppressed communities for it is their free speech which has always been most infringed upon. Indeed, the Harper’s letter opens with the subject of race:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.

In this paragraph, the authors ‘applaud’ the protests for racial justice but ‘raise their voices’ against the demands of these communities to address our colonial history and expect better from our major institutions. The ‘ideological conformity’ communities are seeking is one of anti-racism. It is this form of ‘liberal’ thinking which many civil rights activists have spoken out against over the years. One in which discussion is allowed but action is not. A truly liberal democracy is one which centres freedom and equality for all people. It necessitates and facilitates action towards that goal. Too often we forget that the philosophers of old did not have Black and Brown people in mind when they wrote about liberal values. When the founding fathers of the USA wrote that ‘all men are created equal’, they were referring to White men, not those being forcibly shipped in from Africa. These ideals and concepts require a constant refresh and the post-George Floyd protests should be a catalyst for that conversation not a moment for ‘raising our voices’ against those calling for one.

Back to the teachings of Mill. The key concept he wrote with regards to curtailing freedom was of the ‘harm principle’. In his essay ‘On Liberty’ he wrote that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. This principle, though useful, is ambiguous. This ambiguity exists today and there is a current, divisive, debate on what constitutes an ‘online harm’ – the term adopted by the UK Government as part of its plans to regulate social media platforms. However, it is this ambiguity which is the centre of 99% of all debates on free speech, cancel culture, and political correctness. Is speech acceptable if it incites violence against others? How do we define violence? Physical or mental? Can we measure violence and justifiably claim that someone’s use of free speech was the cause of it? These are questions which would fill volumes on a bookshelf.

What interests me the most when thinking about these questions is not necessarily about harm but about respect. Respect for others is a value dating at least back to Biblical times: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Is ‘respect’ a more useful way to approach the issue of speech? Are there norms of respect which enable full and frank debates without ever needing to degrade, dehumanise, and delegitimise others? If so, how do we foster this respect in our day to day lives and how can it be replicated in the online world? In the offline, we foster respect through education, empathy, and social mixing. We are taught to understand each other and engage only in civil debate. Our words and actions are accountable to us as individuals. Allegations of severe transgressions (e.g. libel or inciting violence) are tried in a court of law and judged by a jury of our peers.

In the online world, we’re faced with immense challenges. Not everyone you engage with online is from the same jurisdiction as you and even if they were, it’s not always possible to know. This is before you even begin to engage with the concept of automated bots who, thanks to advances in technology, increasingly look and sound like real people. The online world is so vastly different to anything which has come before. The philosophers of two decades ago, nevermind two centuries, would struggle to analyse the world in which we now live. It requires fresh thinking, in my view, on how to foster respectful engagement online.

The N-word, ‘Paki’, and norms of respect

The N-word is the greatest example of respect trumping free speech. It’s a word which was once a common part of people’s everyday language but one which became increasingly recognised as a degrading term of abuse. As a word it symbolises an attitude towards Black people which sees them as less than human. This is especially the case when the term is used by a non-Black person. A non-Black person who uses the N-word today reveals themselves to be at best, ignorant, and at worst, racist. Free speech has given way on this term through society collectively defining it as a disrespectful term. A similar term in the UK context is the word ‘Paki’ a term which has been used in a similarly derogatory way against people of South Asian heritage. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s in Britain, attacks known as ‘Paki-bashing’ in which people were violently beaten by gangs was commonplace. Even today, this abusive use of ‘Paki’ is still used, often shouted by people driving past in a car.

It would be wrong to define these terms as ‘offensive’ as this implies hurt feeling and weakness on behalf of the victim which I do not believe to be the case. Most Black and Brown people would class the use of these terms as the least offensive forms of racism that they face in their lives. Instead, we should define them as ‘disrespectful’ which places the onus of blame more firmly on the abuser. When we see individuals using these terms, most people would recognise their use as an instant symbol of disrespect and of racism. The use of these words can often be a sacking offence.

Beyond this, there is language which is not so clear cut that it can be defined as a single word, but is still equally disrespectful, if not more so. If someone tells me to ‘go back to Bangladesh’ or is unnecessarily disrespectful towards my faith, is this something we should accept in the name of free speech? Or is it language we should strive to deter? If someone writes an article stereotyping a minority community as ‘rapists’ or ‘savages’, how do we approach this as a respectful and civilised society? Does the use of this language advance legitimate debate or contribute towards violence? The ‘harm’ caused by this language may not be obvious or immediate, but contribute towards the development of discriminatory and violent policies and attitudes.

To get to even this minimal stage of respect for one another has taken centuries of human progress and bloodshed. As I see it, the internet is playing two roles right now. The first is to advance the very best ideals of free speech – the ability to hold truth to power – and, potentially, the very worst – the degradation of respect and the dehumanisation of others.

Cyber-libertarianism

Current attitudes towards free speech online have not arisen in a vacuum. They have been shaped, primarily, by American ‘cyber-libertarians’ – individuals who are against intervention and regulation online.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

This quote is from the late cyber-libertarian, John Perry Barlow, in his ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, published in 1996, a decade before Twitter was founded. This ideology has penetrated much of the tech world which believes there is no need for intervention or regulation online. This libertarian view was echoed by the co-founder of Reddit, Aaron Swartz:

I think all censorship should be deplored. My position is that bits are not a bug. That we should create communications technologies that allow people to send whatever they like to each other. And when people put their thumbs on the scale and try to say what can and can’t be sent, we should fight back – both politically through protest and technologically through software.

It is an ideology which comes from a good place, believing that the citizens of the internet can agree amongst the rules of social conduct online. Given that many of the major platforms we use today are exported from the US, this attitude towards speech faces tension in various countries, depending on their cultures and social norms. It is an attitude which is slowly changing in recent years, too – with many platforms introducing content moderation systems and many governments drawing up regulation for social media platforms. Following the death of George Floyd, Reddit themselves took a significant step with regards to censorship and closed the infamous and controversial forum ‘r/The_Donald’. This was a forum which contained countless examples of racism, misogyny, and conspiracy theories.

When exploring the subject of free speech online, it is, therefore, vital to understand the context from which these platforms were designed. They were not designed by minoritised communities who understand the damaging and violent power speech can have. They were not designed by those who believe in the ideas of respect, rules, and regulations.

Recent conversations over disinformation, online abuse, and health conspiracies have begun to shift attitudes on this question with more and more people – both in the tech world and in the policy space – understanding that some form of action is necessary.

Empowering minoritised communities

The true cause of free speech activists, the world over, should be to elevate and empower the voices of those who face oppression in society. The internet has been a great enabler of this. By allowing people to have a platform to speak, under a pseudonym if necessary, the internet has created a space for individuals to meet, share experiences, and organise. Much of the writing on the power of social media in the early 2010s was focused on this as the ‘Arab Spring’ took hold. In countries with repressive regimes, social media is the only avenue in which anyone can safely express their opinions without fear of physical persecution. In democratic nations, social media has enabled oppressed communities to speak out about the injustices they face and become more confident in their identity. The recent Black Lives Matter protests would never have been as powerful, or as global, as they have been had it not been for the smartphone footage of George Floyd’s death and the existence of social media. The internet has enabled the most light to be shone on the most injustices. It is in this way that it has been a truly transformative technology. One could very easily argue that we have never had freer speech than we have today.

So, it seems strange then to see individuals who already have access to a platform, often in elite positions of influence in society – newspaper columnists, media commentators, and the wealthy – complain that free speech is ‘under attack’. Is this really the case? Or is it that those who did not traditionally have this ability to organise and communicate, now do – and that they are using this ability to robustly express their views? Is it a case of the famous (and difficult to attribute) saying that “to the privileged, equality feels like oppression”?

Self-censoring impact of abuse

As we identified during our 2018 project ‘Kinder, Gentler Politics’ which explored the rise of online abuse in political debate, the prevalence of abusive content runs counter to the principle of free speech due to its ‘self-censoring’ impact. During our focus groups with young women of colour, this issue was raised as one which some saw as inhibiting their desire to engage with political debates in public forums. The fear of severe and very personal abuse meant that private forums (e.g. WhatsApp) were the preferred option for political discussion. This self-censoring impact is one which was found across the political spectrum, whether the individual is left wing or right wing is irrelevant. It is the abusive and disrespectful nature of speech which encourages self-censorship, not necessarily disagreement itself. It is critical to make this distinction before making generalisations.

“I was bullied by individuals who disagreed with my political opinions – deeply personal, hurtful insults, lies spread, hounded off certain bulletin boards etc. it pushed me into suicidal despair.”

“A lot of the abuse is racialised… it’s trying to go back to the day when people of colour didn’t really have a voice… so when they abuse you, it’s definitely to try and get you out of that space they think you shouldn’t be in.”

“I express my views on social media, but I try not to do it on a public platform, because I don’t want to offend anyone… I wouldn’t like to go on the internet to express my views… not that I have any outrageous views, but because I wouldn’t want to be attacked… because then you have to deal with ‘do you respond?’, ‘do you ignore?’”

This prevalence of abusive and disrespectful discourse poses a direct challenge to the principle of free speech. It risks limiting the true potential for full and free discourse online. An advocate of free speech in the modern world should be engaging in the conversation on regulation, reform, and respect. It’s for this reason that the main recommendation in the Kinder, Gentler Politics report was that we should establish a Civil Internet Tax on social media giants with the revenues reinvested in offline initiatives which promote digital literacy and combat discrimination. If we are to foster free speech long into the future, we need to establish respect for each other as the norm. This is no mean feat but, as we’ve seen with the N-word, it is not beyond the realms of possibility to make significant strides in this direction.

‘Cancel culture’

How does ‘cancel culture’ fit into this debate on free speech? If we accept the definition outlined earlier that is ‘to no longer support someone’ (e.g. no longer buying their products or employing them at an institution) does it count as an expression of free speech or is it part of the ‘self-censoring’ abuse? If (scenario 1) someone has been ‘cancelled’ as David Starkey was following his ‘damn blacks’ comment, this answer is quite clear cut. He used his free speech to make these disrespectful comments and anti-racist individuals used their (more newly found) free speech to criticise him. Actions and consequences. If (scenario 2) a public figure expressed a valid and non-abusive opinion and is faced with valid and non-abusive criticism, this, too, is free speech. The criticism received in this case may have a self-censoring impact but this will be due to a reticence towards debate rather than a result of abuse. If (scenario 3) a public figure expresses a valid and non-abusive opinion and is faced with abusive comments, this would be classed as ‘self-censoring’ abuse. The individual may be significantly less likely to engage in valid public debate due to fear of personal abuse.

I am of the view that most people would agree (from all sides of the debate) that it is scenario 3 which is the problem. We want free and full debate, but we do not want the abuse.

What, then, if people do not abuse an individual directly but lobby instead for the individual to be sacked or removed from a post? I would argue that this, too, is an example of free speech. Uncomfortable on the part of the subject, but I’m unsure whether this could be classed as abusive. Ultimately, the decision to remove someone from a post rests with that institution but in all circumstances there should be strong employment laws which protect people from unfair dismissals and offer them a right to appeal. The gripe therefore shouldn’t be with speech but with employment law. Should it be possible to fire someone for expressing a valid, non-abusive opinion on social media? I don’t think so. Should it be possible to fire someone for verbally abusing others? I’d lean towards yes, although I think we should offer a chance of redemption to those who sincerely express regret and especially those who are not accustomed to life in the public eye.

Again, I think most people would agree with this. Therefore, what are we really debating? We should all be on the same side of being anti-abuse and pro-strong employment rights. Being anti-abuse and pro-employment rights should not be characterised as being anti-freedom of the speech – it’s the opposite.

Speaking truth to power

The principle of free speech has another key characteristic: it’s about ‘speaking truth to power’ and holding the powerful to account. In the internet age, this often descends into what is known as a ‘pile-on’ with hundreds, if not thousands, of people tweeting (and this is an almost uniquely Twitter phenomenon) their criticism and condemnation towards an individual. For politicians, this is largely something they expect given their position in society. Before the advent of the internet, politicians were booed by crowds. The pile-on is, in many ways, the digital boo. For other public figures whose power is not formal but found in their wealth and/or influence, these pile-ons – these digital boos – are an entirely new phenomenon. It is unlikely that JK Rowling, before the internet, would have been booed by a crowd, because those turning up to her events are likely to be fans. This isn’t the case with the internet. That’s not to say non-political public figures never get booed at events, but it is very rarely the case that they would be booed by hundreds, or thousands, of people at once.

Do people have a right to ‘speak truth to power’ if the subject is a non-political public figure? I would argue that yes, they do. The public figure is likely to wield significantly more power and influence than those ‘speaking truth’ to them. As long as this speech is non-abusive and respectful, it should be protected as a form of free speech. It will still be uncomfortable for the recipient but freedom of speech does not mean freedom of discomfort.

Pseudonymity

The ability to speak ‘pseudonymously’ (using a pseudonym) is yet another unique challenge involved with free speech in the internet age. The philosophers of old were unlikely to have envisaged this situation. It is another arena of debate amongst those interested in social media regulation. Should individuals be allowed to be completely anonymous online or should their identities be known to the platform provider? On one end of the argument, there are those who argue anonymity is something which protects the ‘abuser’ – those who undermine the principle of free speech. On the other end are those who argue that anonymity is critical to being able to speak out without fear of persecution (particularly under repressive regimes).

With the safety of secrecy, we can express our true feelings. It is, primarily, for this reason that we have the secret ballot in elections. If we accept verification as a principle (in which the platform knows who you are, but the public doesn’t), the question then becomes ‘can we trust the platform to keep our details secret?’ There are strong arguments on either side. Pseudonymity is key to free speech but accountability is a driver of respect. I don’t know the answer but it warrants research.

Fostering respect

The big question, therefore, is ‘how do we foster respect on the internet?’ This will ultimately be a long-term endeavour involving a mixture of education and regulation. It’s also a question which in the offline world (without all of the new challenges posed by social media), has taken centuries to achieve and, even then, we still have a long way to go. There is unlikely to be a quick fix. No algorithm will solve online abuse. We will need to heavily, and continuously, invest in initiatives in the offline world which foster respect between people of all walks of life. Again, I believe this is something most people would agree with.

As I stated in the introduction to this essay, the public debate on this subject is incredibly poor. Much of the debate is confected, fuelled primarily by confusion over what terms like ‘cancel culture’ actually mean. We should agree that abuse is counter to free speech, that strong employment rights is a must, and that fostering respectful debate is the only genuine long-term solution. We should also recognise that the often polarised and divisive speech we see online has not arisen by accident, but by design. It is not impossible to design something better.

Areeq Chowdhury is the director of WebRoots Democracy.

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