The peculiar case of ‘free-speech’ stopping ‘free-speech’.

Published byMatthew McGrory
on

Technology has been at the heart of human advancement and politics since the beginning of time. Technology means power and this was the same in prehistoric times with the invention of the wheel and flint tools as it was in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press which heralded the beginning of the data age. 

Social Media has been put forward as the poster child of free speech in the modern age, in its purest form when untapped it provides an open book on what people think. But this is based largely on the premise that everybody is engaged in the conversation, and everybody feels free to post what they think. What happens when someone feels intimidated? or the views being expressed aren’t necessarily mainstream? This is where it gets tricky and what the Online Safety Bill is trying, in part, to address.

John Stuart Mill the Victorian philosopher put forward two significant contradictory principles that for me sum up the judgement we must all make when thinking about preserving and encouraging free speech within a social media context. Firstly, the harm principle, which states that one should be allowed to do and say whatever they wish as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others. I’ll re-use his words as he sums it up so clearly;

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill – Philosopher, economist, politician and writer. Photo courtsey of Creative Commons

The second concept is the idea that truth will always find a way to surface so just because someone says something unsavoury, we should still let them say it because either we miss out on something that could possibly be a new truth or we miss out on the existing truth being reinforced. Again I’ll use Mill’s own words to get his point across. 

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

A nice historical experience that illustrates this second point is the flat earth debate. Once upon a time people believed the earth was flat, religious doctrine enshrined this in canonical law and those that declared otherwise for heretics who were put to the flame.  When this debate (if it can be called that) was raging the church banned Galileo’s teachings on the topic, that happened to have the sun at the centre of the solar system and placed him under house arrest for most of his later life. As a result, the world suffered, the truth was kept locked up and science was worse off because open debate was not allowed. However unpalatable the views to the status quo, open debate must always be allowed because that’s how the world progresses. Today’s seemingly stupid idea is tomorrow’s truth.

The other argument that Mill put forward was he trusted us as human beings to recognise evil and falsehoods and that those ideas just wouldn’t find the light of day by being voted down by ordinary citizens. For me this is the central issue around where the debate rages today and where the arguments around what should and should not be included in the Online Safety Bill are formed.

It’s generally accepted that Governments should protect the vulnerable and so there is a strong argument for complete censorship of certain materials both online and offline to children, the vulnerable and those with mental impairment. This is not enshrined in law today and its shameful on everyone involved that it isn’t, the internet is 30 years old, yet children as young as 8 can easily find pornography on the internet causing more problems for them and society as they grow into adult hood.

Governments controlling what the rest of us see is controversial ground and is the subject of a lot of debate in the working groups involved in advising the DCMS around the bill. At Arwen we use the term ‘Lawful but Awful’ to describe comments made online that aren’t illegal but could clearly cause harm to those it is directed against.

This is where our subjective view on implementing Mill’s harm principle comes into play, some people will just be much more sensitive to abusive comments than others. 

In fact, the more abuse you receive the more you become desensitised to it and the more you think it’s okay. The biggest mental health effect is actually on those people who become embroiled in a Twitter storm who aren’t used to dealing with it on a regular basis and who generally aren’t wealthy enough to employ someone else to look after their social media channels who might be more detached from the abuse and be able to look at it more subjectively. 

So, if its subjective, how can we enshrine these things in law? Well, we can’t. The law is objective, it has to be. We can’t function if we are unclear what is and isn’t allowed. Herein lies the problem with free speech on social media. If we leave it as a free for all we are going to cause some people harm and this will naturally get them to remove themselves from the conversation, precisely the opposite of what Mill was looking to happen. We want social media to be thick with debate and diversity of views even if they are unpalatable to what you believe but what we do not want is direct attacks against individuals. 

This is why most of Arwen’s customers focus on the categorisation of Insults. People differ wildly on what is acceptable in terms of Profanity (swearing), a comedian will generally be fine with their audience swearing, whereas a household brand whose content is consumed by children wants all swearing removed. But they all agree on the insult category, they don’t want it on their channels. 

Stop unwanted content
Photo from Pexels by Karolina Grabowska

That’s how you foster free speech online (and in the real world) and that’s how you bring more people to the debate and share more ideas in search of new truths. Which is why we believe in making social media social again. 

For me the harm principle works two ways, you shouldn’t be harmed by others. So, when should you not be allowed to say what you want? For me, I agree with both of Mill’s core principles but free-speech extends to you being able to say what you want without fear of persecution for holding that view. You should not be harmed for voicing your opinion, disagree with it, argue against it, sure, but identity attacks against individuals that have expressed a differing view to you just don’t have a place in a world where free speech is put on a pedestal. 

I put more weight on the Harm principle than I do in Mill’s trust for the human spirit to disseminate truth from falsehoods. He was dealing with a Victorian puritanical world that had restricted access to public comment. Today, anything can be published in moments by anyone. This creates a melting pot of ideas but also creates certain dynamics that are unsavoury. People follow others blindly, the power of crowds mean we can’t be certain of posting a controversial view and then having a grown up conversation about it. Debates turn into pile-on’s, certain issues polarise people so much that there isn’t a safe place to say anything without fear of attack. 

It doesn’t have to be this way, which is why we created Arwen. We believe in freedom of speech free from personal attacks – we keep debate healthy using AI tools and filters to protect our customers and their followers from unwanted content. We don’t pretend to have all the answers or solutions, but we are making a difference to over 40 million people and counting. 

If you’d like to find out more about what we do, please book a no obligation demo here.

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