We can picture the relationship between freedom of speech and democracy as a beautiful love story. The two depend on each other and the absence of one means the end of the other; they can challenge each other and sometimes clash and, through this process, grow and change.
Freedom of speech has propelled history, created political movements, inspired citizens to fight for their rights and oppose their government; it shapes our social structure and we re-affirm its importance any time we vote or protest in the streets of our cities. It intimately affects our personal lives, as we feel capable of growing not only as citizens but as individuals, who participate in a community that respects and debates opinions, rather than crash and persecute them. The recognition of the rights for the minorities of our society, may that be women, LGBTQ+, BAME, are all incredible victories that have been obtained because we first and foremost have the right to express our discontent with our leaders and ask for more respect and inclusion.
The beauty and power of freedom strikes us every day, as we choose what to wear, what music to listen to, what news pages to read, what to share and post on social media. We are in love with this freedom (as we should be), which is why any limitation to it feels immediately wrong. When we hear of censorship, content blocking and posts being removed we see examples of how our freedom of speech can be contained. It is natural to react with surprise and disbelief.
However, these feelings should then give space to reason and we should then start to contextualise freedom of speech to our time, the time of global communication. The normalisation of the internet and social media, which are both now integral part of our daily life, changes the way ideas are spread and judged and has a direct effect on our freedom to share information. The nature of the media themselves limits our ability to form an opinion over what is shared through them and makes it incredibly hard to start constructive conversations. Never before was content able to travel so fast and with such little debate over it, and this is a fundamental point to keep in mind when discussing information sharing in the modern world. The nature of social media creates a chain of events that begins with the spread of an unformed, unquestionable opinion and leads to the darkest declination of freedom of speech: fake news.
How social media affects real life
The issue with content sharing on social media can be divided in two main points: firstly, social media allow for the instantaneous and global spread of all speech and messages, no matter their actual content. This means that any type of information will be available to a large number of users, no matter the reliability of the information provided; secondly, social media rarely facilitates constructive debate over its content. Rather, users today approach social media with an underlying notion of the temporary nature of what they post on them.
These two points together apply to any type of information on social media: as there is no possible way for the programmes to distinguish between reliable news and fake news, they will both travel and be shared without restrictions. And fake news does tend to travel faster than reliable information (1). At the same time, there is little debate and constructive conversation of the content of the information presented, as we can see going over most comment sections of any post, where aggression and personal attack are becoming the norm.
Rather than creating a dialectical process where thesis and antithesis are both considered in their whole and challenged, social media creates hatred and misunderstanding by limiting the users’ ability to actually debate. It does so by imposing time limits on posts or by limiting word-count, but also by censoring comments without a real rational to this process. Ultimately, this leads to a general incapacity to debate opinions that are different from ours. Unconsciously, we learn from our social media experience and become less and less open to debate in our everyday life, as our own unchallenged opinions become stronger and more radical. As a consequence of this slow and daily process, polarised users will be less and less able to challenge any type of information they are exposed to.
Social media now have a tangible effect on real-life events; it would be anachronistic and ignorant of us to not recognise this reality. As such an enormous amount of information is shared on social media, we have to accept that they have become the modern way of making news circulate: there will be people whose political and social ideology will be formed mainly, if not solely, on what information they find on social media. This new role of social media has to be addressed not only so that we can ask for more content regulation on them, but also to change the way that users themselves relate to social media.
Without any doubt, there should be content regulation. Surely, the amount of fake news that can be found on platforms should not be possible as it spreads misinformation, causes division and instals prejudice. However, it is exactly the amount of information that is unreliable that makes it hard to regulate it. Posts and pages are daily taken down on Facebook but there is still a lot more that is in circulation. As we should surely ask more from the regulators of these pages, we also need to ask more of the users, who will be exposed to fake content daily no matter the amount of control imposed by the servers. If a change does not take place in the way we take in information, our societies will be shaped by misinformed citizens.
We can take the COVID-19 situation as the most striking example of the effects that fake news can have on individuals. In the time of COVID, nothing can be taken for certain; we need to be critical of our news reports and governments, as we have to be able to personally assess the ongoing and ever-changing situation to make up our personal opinion about it. By creating our own opinion, we are more likely to engage in certain behaviours: these include social distancing, mask-wearing and quarantining, but also the complete opposite behaviours, such as herd immunity parties and anti-masks protests.
There is no doubt that by now we’ve all exposed ourselves, knowingly or not, to a certain type of information around the pandemic; we have been bombarded with information for so many months now that we all have our sources, which we consider reliable. When we choose if we are going to wear a mask or not, we bring together an enormous amount of information that has pushed us in one direction or the other and part of having freedom of speech is being able to find polar opposite opinions on a specific issue, in this case, mask-wearing. It is not bad in itself to find voices against mask-wearing, that challenge the governmental guidelines to assure that there is actual, scientific evidence to such a restrictive and invasive measure.
However, these challenging voices need to be scientifically sound themselves. And that is what’s missing today.
Rather than having evidence-based articles around issues, undebatable freedom of speech on social media has led to personal opinions becoming widely accepted as truth. As we are exposed to more and more information, it becomes harder and harder to critically assess it. On the other hand, it gets easier to take what we read as true, as most of the time we are not even really thought how we are supposed to critically assess the information we are presented with.
On the contrary, having the possibility to share opinions on such a global scale should push us to read with the most critical eye all the information we are exposed to, so that we can challenge it if necessary or shape our behaviour around it if reliable. It cannot be expected that everyone will know how to judge information, as the process can be difficult and confusing if there is no education around it. However, even if we are not officially and scholastically thought how to do it, there should at least be a conversation about it. We cannot expect change if citizens are misinformed; we cannot expect change if citizens are polarised. As the sources of information become more and more diverse, we need to start asking ourselves how much are we challenging them.
The revolution should, therefore, start from our education: without theory, there can be no practical change. This now translates into the need for an education on social media usage and information appraisal, to prevent dangerous behaviour to stem from fake news.
The need for a theoretical revolution
Change on social media regulation will be slow and difficult to ensure; nonetheless, it is fundamental to create a safe and positive environment on these media, that are taking a more and more relevant position in our lives and communities. We should always ask for better fact-checking and appropriate censorship on them, to ensure the safety of those users who cannot judge for themselves the information they are presented with and prevents processes such as polarisation from happening in the first place.
However, users’ education is just as important, as it has a more instant and tangible effect on our everyday lives. We see the effects of misinformation in so many aspects of our lives, especially in the times of COVID: any time someone doesn’t wear a mask or doesn’t respect social distancing, we are looking at the real-life effects of fake news.
This is not to say that we should all blindly follow what we are told by the mainstream government and do as we are said. Again, our freedom of speech is the greatest achievement in modern, democratic societies and we should always assert our right to question our governments if we don’t agree with what they say. However, freedom of speech calls for a level of critical appraisal that we also need to recognise. It is absolutely legitimate for us to question the information we are given but we should question just as much and just as harshly the information that opposes the mainstream news. Only through this process, we can make sure we are not engaging in what can become dangerous behaviours in the name of fake news.
Critical appraisal should be at the base of the formation of any citizen who is an active part of their society. However, this does not always happen, as schools’ curricula can often under mind this essential life skill. This is why there needs to be a constant debate around fact-checking and mindful reading, which should be initiated whenever possible. We should do so in the name of free speech: if we love our freedom as much as we should, then we will fight for it, to make sure that it is not taken advantage of. And the only way to fight against misinformation is to be informed ourselves, in an evidenced-based and reliable manner.
Maria Chiara Mantova
(1) Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral, The spread of true and false news online, Science (2018)