Free speech can be dangerous

24 Apr 2019



Free speech can be dangerous. Very dangerous. Free speech is not synonymous with truth and impartiality, and should never be seen as such, despite the passion with which it may be defended. Free speech is often the very antithesis of veracity.


Social media, moreover, is a hotbed for radicalism, extremism, and even terrorism. This is a narrative with which we should all be familiar.


In the 21st century, unchecked, unrestrained, and uninhibited free speech is therefore not a noble ideal. It a dangerous one.


This week’s announcement of a Paris meeting in May to address the role of social media in promoting extremism should be welcomed wholeheartedly. It is due time for such a discussion about the lack of online censorship, and time we acknowledged tech companies’ failures to rein in dangerous and divisive discourse for fear of a dent in their profitability.


Of course, in the years gone by of print journalism and lagged communication, the idea of free speech needed to be upheld and promoted for the health of civil society - censorship, and unnerving levels of it, is all too easy in these conditions. There is indeed huge value to be found in the plurality of ideas, unencumbered debate, and argumentation. Countless cases may be studied where citizens’ rights to a freedom of ideas and beliefs have been suffocated by a controlling state power. These cases, however, have all occurred in the absence of democracy.


But to equate the democratic censorship of extreme ideas and propaganda online with the psychological manipulation of the body politic would be misguided. The censorship of extremist propaganda is not incompatible with healthy debate and argumentation. Indeed, it is unchecked free speech — a guise behind which mistruths and ‘alternative facts’ may lie — that is the true enemy of a healthy democracy. 


We must recognise that society — and our means of communication — have permanently changed. No longer do we receive the majority of our news and ideas via television and print journalism, conveyed to us by professionals whose job it is to present the case in an unbiased manner.


No, instead we increasingly receive information via unverifiable sources, often absentmindedly believing the statements and claims of those to whom we give our attention online. As such, statements remain unchecked, inconvenient facts become alternative truths, and the other side of the story becomes total fake news.


Online, we currently have no obligation to tell the truth. If we are confronted with a story incompatible with our worldview, we have no obligation to give this story a fair hearing.


More and more, we are choosing and selecting who we listen to according to preconceived beliefs and values. More and more we are living in social bubbles which only serve to reinforce — rather than challenge — our worldview and which frequently play to our baser desires.


In some ways, the demonopolisation of news might seem a good thing. In almost any market — of goods or services — competition is an apparent driver of low prices and high quality. Economics 101, you might say.


Unfortunately, the truth is not a commodity which can be marketed or sold, despite many media outlets seeing it as such.  These outlets seek not to inform public debate but to play to our fears and desires, to win our attention in an increasingly noisy and competitive world.


Ironically, our passionate defence of free speech — and the marketisation and monetisation of information — has come at the cost of impartiality and honesty, despite however ‘cheaper’ and more desirable this information may be for us as consumers.


It is time, therefore, for more effective controls of social media and for greater censorship. Surely, the barbaric live streaming of last month’s terrorist attacks in Christchurch — since re-uploaded 1.5 million times — should be enough to win around all but the most passionate supporters of freedom of speech.


Good luck to Prime Minister Ardern and President Macron.

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