On Freedom of Expression and Modern Internet
Recently I have been thinking about the philosophy behind free speech and modern technology. Speech has never truly been free – you always get the cultural / society / legal limit on what you can say. It also costs money or energy to make a speech – back in the days, perhaps you had to the soap box in Hyde Park, perhaps you had to spend money to print things, television and radio airtime both cost money as well. Internet is a great equaliser in terms of freedom of speech – everyone can publish their thoughts on the Internet.
However, Internet is a tool that can be abused easily. You can read the report from the Parliament yourself if you want (Disinformation and 'fake news': Final Report https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/1791/179102.htm). I haven’t read the whole thing, but I have read snippets of it. It is a rather scary read. Basically, the Russians have been spreading disinformation on social media to influence our democracy. This is effectively psychological warfare. The problem with social media is that the audiences think that the public content on the social media is just from another fellow citizen, with good intent. This is often not the case. People might want to sell you things, or Russians might want to influence your thoughts. With traditional media, it was and still is easier to identify the source of information.
Quite a few journalists think that social media platforms are harmful to the society. I am not sure if I completely agree with them, I can certainly see where they get their ideas from. I certainly think the impact of disinformation on our society is a problem that needs to be addressed. I find it funny that Facebook employees themselves at one point asked whether they should do something to stop Trump from getting elected (https://gizmodo.com/facebook-employees-asked-mark-zuckerberg-if-they-should-1771012990), but then they decided that it is a better idea for them take a passive role, and not to influence the voters. The only problem is that they didn’t know their platform was being used as a cesspool for Russian disinformation campaign.
I think speech is never free, not even on the Internet. A combination of algorithm and human influences determine what gets shown on your home feed, and what should be trending. Those lucky speeches that get picked up by the algorithm are going to be “freer” than those that didn’t get picked up. Eventually, perhaps human reviewers will review the algorithm’s output and approve them for publication. I find it rather scary how much influence social media companies have on what people read and look at. This is mainly because not every thoughts and ideas deserve the same amount of attention, and quite often, popular things are not necessarily good. I don’t think there are computer algorithms that can identify popular things that are not good yet. Social media platforms are built on the axiom that popular things are good. The axiom itself can be harmful for the society as a whole, IMHO.