Revolutionary Measures

Where does free speech end?

The cover story in this week’s Economist warns against the growing dangers posed to free speech, by a combination of repressive governments, physical attacks on individuals, and the spread of the idea that people have a right not to be offended. The crux of the article is that the most worrying danger is actually the third one – by not listening to, and debating against, ideas that we find wrong we are actually limiting free speech. It is much better to dismantle an argument and point out its flaws by arguing against its proponents rather than banning the discussion of a subject or point of view, not matter how distasteful we find it. Of course, there are exceptions, as The Economist points out – incitement to violence, for example.

English: Free Speech. Luis Ricardo cartoon Esp...

Shortly after reading this I saw that BuzzFeed has pulled out of an advertising deal with the US Republican Party, now that Donald Trump has essentially won the party’s nomination. It has turned down an alleged $1.3m of income as it fundamentally disagrees with his position and policies. While this isn’t a curb on free speech as such – there are plenty of other places Trump can advertise, and I’m not sure how many of BuzzFeed’s demographic would vote for him anyway, it does illustrate another trend that I’ve noticed over the past few years.

In the UK we’ve gone from a media landscape dominated by four TV channels (and I remember Channel 4 launching), and a set number of newspapers to a multiverse of places to get hold of our news and information. In many ways this personalisation is great – we’re served up stories, or visit sites/TV channels based on our preferences, meaning we get immediate access to what we are interested in.

But on the other hand the shared experience has disappeared – the chances of watching the same TV programme or reading the same article are much fewer. Many people have given up linear TV altogether in favour of box sets or internet-based services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, some of which auto suggest what you’d like to watch next, based on your previous viewing. At the same time local newspapers have been decimated by the internet, meaning that even many free sheets are no longer delivered, with the exception of titles such as Metro.

So, it is quite possible that people can inadvertently edit out news that is outside their range of sources. To me, this is as much a threat to civil society as curbs on free speech. After all, you can’t complain against something you don’t even know is happening.

So, what can be done about it? We obviously can’t/shouldn’t go back to the limited choice that we had before, particularly as much 1980s television was dire. What we should be looking at is ensuring that the places we are going for our news and information are open, level playing fields that reflect and provide us with a range of views.

This is relatively simple for publically accountable sites such as the BBC, but much more complex for those like Facebook and Twitter which rely on user generated content. Facebook recently had to explain itself to US senators after allegations of anti-right wing basis in its Trending Topics section. The worrying thing is that while many people assume articles are picked by algorithms (which is potentially scary enough), there is major input from human reviewers, leading to the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias creeping in.

What can social media do? An elegant solution would be to randomise the whole process, serving up stories that have absolutely nothing to do with your background or interests. However, given Facebook’s desire to keep you on its site for as long as possible, it is unlikely this would please its users, or shareholders. Instead, how about a certain percentage of random content provided every day, even if it is flagged as different in some way. All it takes is people to become intrigued and click on it, and new connections and interests could be kindled – opening up debate and helping to safeguard free speech. Any other ideas gladly received in the comments section below………

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June 8, 2016 - Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , ,

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