It’s The (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age Of Free Speech

from Wired

FOR MOST OF modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to keep it from being mechanically disseminated. Shutter the news­paper, pressure the broad­cast chief, install an official censor at the publishing house. Or, if push came to shove, hold a loaded gun to the announcer’s head.

This actually happened once in Turkey. It was the spring of 1960, and a group of military officers had just seized control of the government and the national media, imposing an information blackout to suppress the coordination of any threats to their coup. But inconveniently for the conspirators, a highly anticipated soccer game between Turkey and Scotland was scheduled to take place in the capital two weeks after their takeover. Matches like this were broadcast live on national radio, with an announcer calling the game, play by play. People all across Turkey would huddle around their sets, cheering on the national team.

Canceling the match was too risky for the junta; doing so might incite a protest. But what if the announcer said something political on live radio? A single remark could tip the country into chaos. So the officers came up with the obvious solution: They kept several guns trained on the announcer for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes of the live broadcast.

It was still a risk, but a managed one. After all, there was only one announcer to threaten: a single bottleneck to control of the airwaves.

Variations on this general playbook for censorship—find the right choke point, then squeeze—were once the norm all around the world. That’s because, until recently, broadcasting and publishing were difficult and expensive affairs, their infrastructures riddled with bottlenecks and concentrated in a few hands.

But today that playbook is all but obsolete. Whose throat do you squeeze when anyone can set up a Twitter account in seconds, and when almost any event is recorded by smartphone-­wielding mem­­bers of the public? When protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, a single livestreamer named Mustafa Hussein reportedly garnered an audience comparable in size to CNN’s for a short while. If a Bosnian Croat war criminal drinks poison in a courtroom, all of Twitter knows about it in minutes.

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7 Responses to It’s The (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age Of Free Speech

  1. Sebastien Jose Fortes February 9, 2018 at 7:34 pm #

    This article expresses exactly what’s been on my mind as of late: How can we trust the media in a world with better technology than before? In other words, the media knows us better than we know it.

    On the one hand, I still think the idea that we’re living in 1984 is ridiculous. We don’t have Thought Police destroying the notions we believe to be true and replacing them. On the other hand, we do have media algorithms that can detect the content we like in order to keep us stuck to our screens.

    The issue here is one of bias—we don’t know every side of an issue, and we’re distracted. Before my friend Sade posted on her Facebook account about the slave trade in Libya, I didn’t even realize what was going on.

    There’s a study that was conducted about this very subject. In it, some high-schoolers were given news articles which they had to distinguish as either truth or “fake news”. Ironically, under the Trump administration, some of the very real news articles were assumed to be fake just because they sounded fake.

    Furthermore, sites like Reddit are still on the rise. Reddit is comprised of various communities called “subreddits”, which themselves are made of links and comment threads. The problem with this is that users can subscribe to subreddits that only fit their personal interests—one example being r/The_Donald. On this subreddit, only Trump supporters are allowed to comment.

    Unfortunately, their pages are littered with incoherent memes and political cartoons. The members can upvote posts they agree with, and downvote posts that they just don’t like, forming an ironic democracy. There is very little sense of balance.

    This may happen with Facebook, as they’re testing a new “downvote” button themselves. This, in conjunction with their already-established algorithms, would be a loophole for censorship. This form of censorship wouldn’t make us all oblivious like the North Koreans, but it would divide everyone for their differing opinions. We wouldn’t live in 1984. We’d live in the 1976 portrayed in Slaughterhouse-Five—in which the United States is “divided into twenty petty nations so that it will never again be a threat to world peace”.

  2. Don R February 9, 2018 at 8:06 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree with the author’s statement that “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech.” The marketplace of ideas theory that truth will rise above the garbage in search of facts only worked when our attention spans were longer than that of goldfish. The idea of “what is true” is the more profound question that we have to examine. This time is a crisis of subjectivity in favor of objectivity. There is the poisoning idea that is creeping into American life that truth is merely the makeup of people in significant positions of power and that there is a need to tear down facts and replace it with subjectivity experience that can be statistically irrelevant. There is this idea that one’s personal experience, their feelings, outweigh the truth. That one’s hardship or failure is what should be highlighted when the numbers line up to a different conclusion. What is needed on the subject of overwhelming information, true or false, is to understand that the cultural transformation from books and papers to digital media will take more than the 2016 election to change the crisis that truth finds itself in. A certified human oracle that would choose what is right or wrong, i.e., Snopes.com, is not at all the solution to the truth problem. It would be egotistical to proclaim that human beings, or at least myself, are beyond the mortal evils of corruption and subjectivity. Attention span, a rapidly dwindling ability, needs to be emphasized in its importance. One cannot even imagine the old days of journalism, just revisiting the Nixon scandal with the care and dedication of professional journalists is astonishing. In an age where everyone has a blog, but none have face to face debates like the William F. Buckle and Gore. We need a return to the art of dialogue, a skill that the millennial generation seems to lack experience. In a time where Facebook and Twitter are seen as “excellent” platforms to have in-depth philosophical debates on healthcare, the 1st Amendment, and vast government budgets we might be in our death throws and too encased in the latest hashtag to notice it.

  3. Andrew Kuttin February 11, 2018 at 2:50 am #

    The thought that the best cure for bad speech is more speech is a noble, but outdated one. It is easy to forget that the influential social media platforms we know today have only been around for a little over a decade. Their prevalence is relatively new and therefore, so is their impact on our democracy. There have only been four presidential elections in the 21st century and 2016’s saw an unprecedented level of influence from social media. The main point of this article is not the influence that the large user base of social media has on our democracy, but rather the effect of the platform on its users. It refers to these platforms as “ad brokers”, pointing out that their moneymaking strategy is to sell the appeal of such a large user base to advertisers. To sweeten the appeal, platforms collect massive amounts of data on its users in order to target specific ads to the users that they are most likely to influence. By doing this, they are labeling us based on our interests, making it easy to fill your feed with nothing but content that you agree with. This social media narrowcasting is exactly what the article is concerned with. Politically, these platforms have created a facet for producers of “fake news” to target their content at those most likely to believe it. This is thought of as a type of censorship because it invalidates the outlets and the things that we think to be true. The article refers to the new propaganda based form of censorship as “epidemics of disinformation”. Because major social media platforms conduct surveillance of user preferences to such a large degree, they have the ability to influence the view of almost any user.
    An example of one of these “epidemics of misinformation” can be found in 2016’s general election. The article tells of an instance where the Trump campaign used nonpublic “dark posts” in an attempt to influence African Americans to not vote. I believe that the much more prevalent issue is public posts that reach a base of users crafted by an algorithm. Plenty of disgustingly false stories were flung from supporters of both sides of the aisle in 2016, but none was worse than “Pizzagate”. This was a conspiracy theory claiming that key Democratic operatives were operating a child sex ring out of the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza shop. The false story caught such a strong footing in the eyes of the far right that a man entered the shop with a gun demanding that the children be freed. Such a ridiculous story was able to take flight because of these echo chambers of affirmative information that social media algorithms have created. Far right users are shown content meant to fit their own political pre dispositions and if that does not include a truthful retort then it is possible for conspiracy theories like Pizzagate to be shared and spread until it gains a sort of mainstream appeal within that ideological subsection. Moreover, these subsections are created by the new wave of individualized speech coming from large social media platforms.

  4. Antonio Macolino February 12, 2018 at 5:56 pm #

    With the explosion of social media, and the ease of use of the internet, it is possible to justify this as the golden age of free speech. It is now easier than ever for people to voice their opinions, but more amazing is how easy it is for people to band together. Social media makes it easier than ever for groups to speak about their ideas and spread their messages. While this all seems like a very good thing, this golden age of free speech is actually not as great as it looks.
    New types of censorship have come about. Rather than the traditional act of blocking media via the government, a new type of censorship has formed and it is called attention. It would be utterly impossible today for governments to actually censor things online but it is relatively easy for them to bring attention to certain topics. If a government or group wants to end the ability to talk about a certain topic, all they need to do now a days is work with large companies such as Facebook and Google to bring negative attention to the topic. These people will hire media specialists to create “fake news” and will work directly with companies such as Facebook to make sure these articles gain much attention. This fake news is very harmful to society because it is becoming increasingly more difficult for people to judge what is real and what is not. The article even states that during the 2016 presidential election, more attention was drawn to fake news article than was drawn to articles from reputable sources.
    I believe that this poses a huge problem for our generation and future generations to come. It is becoming increasingly easier for people to create these fake news stories or exaggerate the details of actual events that occurred. People do not realize what is real and what is fake. Living in this false reality leads people the wrong way and makes it harder for people to make informed decisions. Evil groups such as white supremacists can use this to their advantage to spread their ideals using fake news. If we do not figure out how to make the internet more trustworthy, future generations will have trouble in discerning what is true and what is a false reality.

  5. Michael Polito February 16, 2018 at 12:19 pm #

    The 21st century is considered the golden age of free speech due to the rise in social media and the advancement of smart phones. Posting pics or videos of anything has become so easy you can practically post something with the click of a button. Everything on the internet was posted by someone for the entertainment of someone else. It’s the golden age if free speech because you can basically post and see whatever you want, but is everything that you are looking at real. According to the article it has become easier for Russian bots and other kinds of hackers and artificial intelligence to generate fake videos and post them for people to see. This raises the question of can you believe anything that you see on the internet because there is a chance that it is fake. When you post something anyone could see it and if they like the picture or video that you posted it is possible for these hackers to take your post and turn it into something else. The internet and social media are so frequented by people that just by the users certain page clicks ads that relate to your page views will come up. But you can never believe them because they may be from the Russians and the ad could contain a virus.
    The golden age of free speech can come with some consequences, like clicking on the ad that is designed for you and then getting a virus. The article says that you cannot trust everything that you see in the internet for those reasons. I didn’t realize that it was like this, I thought that everything posted on the internet was real instead of propaganda by hackers and Russian bots. They can post fake videos and have a whole nation believing them. We should not have to worry about fake things being posted on social media because we should be safe online. But being safe online is hard due to the fact that anyone can post anything and so there are people out there that will post an inflammatory comment or post something that is wrong just for the attention. There are a lot of people who use the internet for the wrong reason and get away with it. The internet and social media is supposed to be a place where people can express their opinions and post and share pictures with other people. It is not for sickos to exploit and use for their illegal ways. There are too many people out there who take advantage of the internet and what it can do for their own personal gain. Most of the time it is illegal activity that these people use the internet for and it is possible for them to do because the internet is open to anyone. It is the golden era of free speech for all the people out there that are using the internet the right way to post about their daily adventures and share their opinion with other people.

  6. Jessica Williams February 16, 2018 at 1:03 pm #

    Many could argue that we are in a “golden age of free speech,” because of the increase in the use of social media on a day-to-day basis. While social media has become an outlet for a variety of people to express their thoughts and opinions, from those of human rights activists to fans of a particular video game, with the current political climate, the right to free speech is actually under attack in a way not all of us are able to detect at first glance.

    The article mentions a good point about the redirection of attention from credible news sources to fake news, as propaganda today relies on the spread of misinformation instead of directly silencing the voices of those who want to be heard. This can also be tied to the issue with Fox News being the only credible news source, according to the President of the United States, although that information is not supported by facts or evidence. Social media worsens the issue, as the article also stated that during the 2016 election, fake news outlets gained more attention than 19 credible news sources combined. With the rise in the use of social media, and how little resources we have to safeguard ourselves, more people could become susceptible to the spread of misinformation and fake news, which could eventually lead to the harm of others.

    The reality of dangerous groups using social media platforms to further their agenda of hate is a reality we are already living in. The specific words and phrases said by certain individuals could be misinterpreted or deliberately used to validate these violent groups of their overall goals and intentions. The article mentions Facebook being used as a means to help violent groups such as white supremacists and radical Buddhist monks organize themselves more effectively to carry out their plans. This brings the issue of freedom of speech into play, as it is Facebook’s primary design to bring people together and organize events. However, in the event that someone plans to bring harm to others via online means, it becomes a matter of the constitutional rights of the individuals to freedom of speech, to the constitutional rights of others to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Personally, I believe that for the sake of others, violent groups of people or individuals with plans to harm others being stated online should be taken into consideration. While it is granted to groups of people and individuals to express themselves freely, it should not have to come at the cost of other human lives. Propaganda and fake news enable these groups to carry out their plans, as the spread of misinformation could encourage them to continue doing what they believe is to be right and necessary. An example of this would be the contrast between the words of the President after the white supremacist rally, where he suggested that the people in the crowd were “very fine people,”(Article: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/) versus the NFL players who were protesting against police brutality among people of color, in which he openly condemned them and called for them to be fired (http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/23/media/donald-trump-nfl-protest-backlash/index.html). In addition, people should become more aware of the sources that they use when being briefed about the news, and should always fact-check the information being brought to them, in case the news presented is tasked with the redirection of an individual’s attention to something that could discredit the information of another.

  7. Audrey Manion February 16, 2018 at 2:02 pm #

    As much as I believe in free speech being vital in supporting a thriving democracy, I can agree that things have gotten a little out of hand lately. I can hardly go on Facebook, Instagram, or even Twitter anymore without seeing an advertisement that is eerily related to something I like, or content that looks like it was specifically chosen for my eyeballs to see. It is true that speech is free and readily available for anyone to hear or view if they wish, but it has become increasingly more likely for that information to find you first. The fact that our information is being bought and sold, just to feed us advertisements tailored to what we are most likely to click on, or the fact that probably half of what we read on the internet is fake, can be disheartening to say the least. It is like we have taken a step back as a society. Speech is as free as its ever been, but is it really worth it?
    I would argue that it is absolutely worth it. Yes, this culture of “fake news” is damaging the credibility of real news outlets and spreading media that is biased and political to target people. But I think that this is just part of a learning curve. Technology is constantly progressing, and we are still getting used to the power of all these platforms of speech. Like the author’s analogy of the evolution of social media to the evolution of the auto industry’s safety standards, we are still figuring out the best ways to use this form of information transportation. There are going to be some accidents and even fatalities before reform happens.
    The answer is not to limit the amount of information being spread, but to find ways to avoid the negative aspects of it. There should be more attention brought to bots that spam Twitter pages, and more conversation about whether what the Trump campaign did in the 2016 election, and what other political campaigns and advertisers do, on Facebook was or is ethical. Also, it is important for children to start learning at a young age how to spot what is real and what is fake. Luckily for me, I grew up right before the social media era, when people were still on Myspace, and I didn’t make a Facebook account until I was in high school; I always take what I see on the internet with a grain of salt. Kids today are surrounded by the negative effects of this overload of speech though, and may have a hard time discerning the truth through all the noise. In order for us to work out the kinks in this system that is still new to us, we must first start conversations about it.

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