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I was struck today by two news items; the first an article on the ethical challenges facing social media companies, the second an alarming news item from Belarus about the jailing of two journalists simply for filming a street protest.
Free speech is a cherished value in all modern democracies. I have already related my father’s saying of; “I may not agree with you, but I’ll defend your right to say it”. However, my father’s views, like so many an elder statesmen, were formed in an age without the internet (although he was familiar with the propaganda from Josef Goebbels in pre-WWII Germany) and now such a simplistic approach to free speech is no longer enough.
Today, the internet creates an almost instant global reach which targets reader groups and reinforces ideas and beliefs of each group with advanced algorithms so that views become polarised and increasingly unbalanced by counterpoints.
Josef Goebbels wrote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
The line, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” has incorrectly been attributed to Goebbels, Hitler and Lenin but nonetheless its sentiment has been taken to heart by dictators and wannabe dictators the world over since time began. However, when teamed with the internet it becomes even more pernicious as shown by two Trump pardonees, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon and others in the Trump camp like Rupert Murdoch, who have gone to town with Big Lie politics.
The dichotomy is that unqualified support for free speech in the internet age leads to the exploitation of the masses (to coin a Soviet-era phrase) and consequences such as the January 6th storming of the US Capitol but taken too far we arrive at the suppression of free speech with outcomes such as the imprisonment and oppression of journalists in Belarus by Europe’s pre-eminent dictator, Lukashenko.
The expansive reach of the internet can be contrasted with the narrowness of its control. The following graph shows how concentrated access to the internet has become:
Global market share and annual revenues of largest cloud computing providers:
– and these giants are no longer afraid to wield their power and shut the internet gates – witness the exclusion of the right-wing bullhorn, Parler recently (which fits my father’s maxim quite well I think as I definitely do not subscribe to their rantings).
The article that I was reading (www.fidelity.com.au/insights/investment-articles/policing-the-platforms by Jon Guiness) concluded that social media companies needed to have external boundaries on speech imposed upon them – initially via independent ethics boards but ultimately by legislation.
I think more is required. A multi-pronged approach.
When a company with a global reach can impose their thoughts and ideas and business models on countries with democratically elected legislators (as Facebook is trying to do in Australia), it is time to call enough. At the turn of the 20th century, Standard Oil had a stranglehold on the US economy (it was the industrial empire of John D. Rockefeller and associates, controlling almost all oil production, processing, marketing, and transportation in the United States) which was only rectified when the company was broken up into more than 40 independent entities by legislation. It’s time for something similar with the tech giants, although in our global, interrelated world it is not going to be straightforward (for example, how do you then constrain non-western giants like Ali Baba and other embryonic giants when they use the power of the Chinese state to try to forge an international hegemony?).
The US is where these giants live and prosper today; the US still has the ability to influence global norms and the US is where some of the worst of excesses in misinformation have occurred in the democratic west. So action in the US is a must.
As I noted recently, I would like to see a return to the ‘Fairness doctrine’ in the USA (to require presentation of issues of public importance in a manner that is honest, equitable, and balanced) in order to curb misinformation and I’d also like to see a more level playing field with other news outlets by revamping S230 of the Communications Decency Act (which insulates internet platforms from legal reprisals based on their content – a get-out-of- jail-free card for websites that broadcast lies).
It is time to walk away from the edge of the abyss. Time for the right to speak freely but honestly strengthened, time for balance to be restored, time for truth – the greatest enemy of the (unprincipled) state – to be returned to its honoured pedestal.