Free Speech. Cancel Culture. Silencing. Thought Police.

Western democracies value free speech. It is a core tenet of our philosophy. It is enshrined in constitutions, upheld by courts. It has been used by acitivists to share their causes, and it has changed out world for the better, countless times. However “Free Speech” is being used by extremists to perpetrate violence, and to instigate unrest and outrage, and these actions are undermining democracy.

Social media platforms have become inextricably entwined in this issue. They are the platform on which the most widely shared speech occurs. To this point in time, social media platforms have largely taken a passive role, allowing most (except clearly unlawful) content to stand or fall on it’s own merits. This approach has allowed malicious actors to do great harm in many ways:

  • Targetting marginalised people with abuse - by race, sexual orientation, religion or other distinctions.
  • Shifting major policy by interfering in debate in foreign countries - stirring up ethnic divides, creating false “news”.
  • Interfering in elections by subtly manipulatiung public opinion.
  • Ecacerbating a public health crisis in the pandemic.
  • Damaging the mental health of young people.

These are just some of the harms “free speech” by people with malicious intent are visiting on society. The social media platforms have no incentive to curtail the behaviour because they have discovered that people identify with and tribalise around certain viewpoints and can be used for ad targetting (and in fact the more tribal poeple are, the more gullible they prove to be and the more affected by advertising). In other words, sowing division makes more money for the social media giants. Even if they recognise this and want to stop it, they are incentivised to continue, and they are in direct competition with one another. No-one wants to give up a competitive advantage. The behaviour will not change without legislation.

How should it change? This is a hard question. Free speech as a concept is a bedrock foundation of our core beliefs in democracy. At its heart is the idea that all should be free to express their thoughts, however repugnant to others. Free speech amd protest have brought about all major civil progress. Womens emancipation. The end of slavery. Various national independence. There is no doubt that freedom of speech must be allowed and must in fact flourish.

There is also no doubt that malicious actors are using the concept to cause harm and espouse dangerous causes.

So how do we distinguish? Can we distinguish - or must we allow the bad with the good? We already have limits on free speech, which seem aligned on the principle of whether such speech is to cause imminent lawless action. A lot of the harms including those listed above would not meet the standard for prosecution as incitement under the law.

There is a “third way”. There is some evidence that many if not all the harms can be mitigated by the simple expedient of exposing who the actors are, in real life and in real time, in connection with their posts, by their real names and locations. As an example, Google created a social network called Plus in the 2010s where you had to register with your real name and identity. The quality of debate was excellent, (I really enjoyed their platform). However, it could not compete with the other established networks, and it did not grow fast enough. Google pulled the plug in April 2019.

If social media platforms were required to have people to sign up with real identities and post with that identity, we will find that people behave very differently. Simply knowing that the “shit-poster” about the Clintons is actually Vitaly from Arkangelsk would have an effect on the credibility of the post. Also knowing that your post will be attributed to you and can be found by employers, spouses, parents, teachers etc will have a significant impact on your choice of post. Consider this: the origins of free speech were conceived when your platform was a public square. You had to stand out there and make your speech, where people knew who you were and could identify you. It was difficult. Potentially dangerous to espouse your views. Yet people did it anyway - if they believed enough in them. The fact that more people are encouraged to express their views because they can do so with a pseudonym, without any fear of being unmasked, has not increased our safety as a society. Nor has it (apparently) advanced the cause of progress. If anything, we are exposed to more violence and damage as a result. Hate groups have been able to organise under its cover. Insurrections and pogroms have been organised via pseudonyms and on encrypted networks. Racist propoganda has been injected into public discourse by foreign actors all over the world, resulting in ethnic cleansing, deaths and mass displacement of whole peoples.

Now if governments (and really by this it would have to be the US government, and the European Union) mandate this, there would be a level playing field. No single company would find itself crushed by algorithms because they were going it alone. The advertising money would still have to go somewhere. Except perhaps the targetted political advertising from foreign powers - but arguably that was only harmful if not downright illegal in the first place.

I have seen the arguments that some people do not feel safe (victims of violence etc) participating with their real names, and that the only safe space they have is their online community created under a pseudonym. To them I say sorry, and observe that we need to do better, to protect these people in the real world. Creating a “meta” world so that marginalised people can feel safe is missing the real point. We should not have to be doing that in the first place, and such a world is a poor substitute for the real action we need to be taking. Meanwhile, the forces of evil using these anonymous communities to spread harm are moving the world in the wrong direction. Increasing the likelihood that there will be ever more people needing anonimity for personal safety in the first place.