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………

June 8, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robots vs serendipity

A swarm of robots in the Open-source micro-rob...

By bringing the world together the internet opens up pretty much unlimited possibilities. You can discover completely new topics and interests, communicate with people across the globe and access a myriad of content that was previously unavailable.

More and more of what we read, watch and listen to comes via the internet – and this is only going to increase as previously analogue services such as TV go digital. On one hand this widens choice, but how do we navigate and find things we are interested in? And more to the point, is just watching what we’re interested in necessarily a good thing?

Showing my age, when I was growing up I had a choice of three TV channels (I remember the excitement of the Channel 4 launch), and video recorders were in their infancy. So you watched what was on – or switched the TV off and did something (less boring) instead. That meant there was a greater chance of stumbling upon a programme or subject that you wouldn’t have chosen to watch but actually widened your knowledge. I’m not saying the 1970s was a golden age of TV but you were likely to see a broad range of subjects in your daily viewing.

Now we have a plethora of channels and there’s always that nagging fear that there’s something better on the other side. Navigating this maze is difficult – how do you choose what to watch when there are thousands of alternatives? The way I see it there are essentially three ways of making a choice:

Robots – like Amazon Recommendations your TV/Set Top Box or PC sees what you have watched and enjoyed in the past and comes up with more of the same. However this essentially narrows your viewpoint – you’ll potentially end up watching programmes very similar to those you’ve seen before. The same goes for search – after all, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for before you type something into Google.

Friends – personal recommendations work, provided they come from people you trust. And given pretty much every programme is available on catch-up TV, you can view what your friends on like after the fact. And social media provides a quick way of gathering recommendations. Better than robots, but still likely to keep your watching within a relatively constricted area – after all we’re governed by a herd mind.

Editorial choice – what does the newspaper/TV guide say is good and worth watching? TV previews tend to cover a wide range of subjects so can highlight programmes that you wouldn’t normally watch. All good, but even with glowing reviews some programmes may not sound like your cup of tea and you won’t watch them.

Ironically the digital world can give us too much choice and make us flee back into watching a tiny fraction of its range. So, what’s the solution – or does there even need to be one? I’d argue that we should rely less on robots or even our friends and trust to serendipity – switching on the TV to a random channel and giving the programme 10 minutes to make an impression. Yes, it might mean seeing some duds but it also gives the chance of finding a new area that will change your life. Now all we need is an app to help us do that……………

September 11, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment