Rewriting freedom of speech

Monica Porteanu‘s second post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns the weaponization of free speech. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

Many can only dream of having the freedom to express their opinion. The fortunate of us might take it for granted. Others might see it through biased lenses. I acknowledge mine, originating from growing up in a former communist country. In that world, information dissemination meant precisely two hours of evening TV programming. Any form of expression linked everything back to the doctrine regurgitating “glorious” dictatorship propaganda. Information beyond meant treason. Asking for a passport just to explore a different culture, stamped one as being against the system. Censorship was deeply entrenched in everyday life. It should come as no surprise that the world after the cold war sought freedom of access and expression. But with little knowledge on how to achieve that after 50 years of communist rule. As a result, even today, after almost another 30 years, the discovery of free speech is continuing. Experimentation with extreme polarization is allowed. Perhaps unknowingly, essential aspects of freedom, well-being, or even human rights are impacted. Foul language, objectifying those who are different, or talk shows exploiting fear are such examples.

However, everywhere else the discovery of what free speech may become seems to also be in question. The internet has opened massive channels of online communication. It has increased our acceptance of sharing more about ourselves, even intertwining our private and public selves. To stay informed, and to speak up when we see fit, we use a multitude of devices and apps. We freely give our consent to provide pieces of our private information. More recently though, the online life that we thought was public, has increasingly become an island that we inhabit together with those like us. The software is becoming more and more sophisticated, learning about our preferences and presenting us with the information it thinks we want. In the process, it isolates us in our own world. Not realizing we live with a different flavour of privacy, we still stay always online, expecting everything to happen now, while disseminating instantly what resonates with us, thus reinforcing the attributes of the data silo forming our world.

The paradox of the bubble is that it still drives the fragmentation of our attention with methods that have their own chapters in economics, politics, or social realms. Some are fair, some are not. Most of these methods have recently emerged and our language is catching up with the times by adding these contemporary meanings to the dictionary. For example, “someone who posts inflammatory messages online to provoke emotional responses” is called an internet troll. Sadly, though, our “always on,” instant, share-all expectations have become a medium for expanding trolling into the physical world, making it ubiquitous. With this, everything goes, it seems, including extreme, hateful, and harmful speech that has been recently coined in media as the “weaponization” of free speech.

We have the freedom of assembly, religion, and speech, or the freedom to marry and love, but is this enough? OCAD Professor Suzanne Stein argues for a “greater form of freedom: freedom from harm.”

The question is what do we do about it? Perhaps zooming into this proliferation of trolling, online anonymity, social media bubbles and their connection with the fight for our attention would provide an answer. In a world in which we’ve become omnipresent, attention fragmentation seems to illustrate the contemporary version of the divide and conquer paradigm. Attention holds the key to today’s competitive advantage, starting from the individual level. At the same time, the more we realize our attention is selective yet limited, the more we seem to crave it while giving it freely away at the expense of freedom itself. Has the freedom for attention become a basic need, and right?

© Monica Porteanu 2018