Posts Tagged ‘It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech’

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one.  In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle — a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals:  for creating a knowledgeable public;  for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate;  for holding powerful people and institutions accountable;  for keeping communities lively and vibrant.  What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver.
Creating a knowledgeable public requires at least some workable signals that distinguish truth from falsehood.  Fostering a healthy, rational, and informed debate in a mass society requires mechanisms that elevate opposing viewpoints, preferably their best versions.  To be clear, no public sphere has ever fully achieved these ideal conditions — but at least they were ideals to fail from.  Today’s engagement algorithms, by contrast, espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.
The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech.
Some scientists predict that within the next few years, the number of children struggling with obesity will surpass the number struggling with hunger.  Why?  When the human condition was marked by hunger and famine, it made perfect sense to crave condensed calories and salt.  Now we live in a food glut environment, and we have few genetic, cultural, or psychological defenses against this novel threat to our health.  Similarly, we have few defenses against these novel and potent threats to the ideals of democratic speech, even as we drown in more speech than ever.
The stakes here are not low.  In the past, it has taken generations for humans to develop political, cultural, and institutional antibodies to the novelty and upheaval of previous information revolutions.  If The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will came out now, they’d flop;  but both debuted when film was still in its infancy, and their innovative use of the medium helped fuel the mass revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of Nazism.
By this point, we’ve already seen enough to recognize that the core business model underlying the Big Tech platforms — harvesting attention with a massive surveillance infrastructure to allow for targeted, mostly automated advertising at very large scale — is far too compatible with authoritarianism, propaganda, misinformation, and polarization.  The institutional antibodies that humanity has developed to protect against censorship and propaganda thus far — laws, journalistic codes of ethics, independent watchdogs, mass education — all evolved for a world in which choking a few gatekeepers and threatening a few individuals was an effective means to block speech.  They are no longer sufficient.
    —    Zeynep Tufekci
From her article:  “It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech
Appearing in:  Wired Magazine;  dtd:  February 2018
On-line at:  https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/
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Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together.  We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies.  These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite.  And Facebook gorges us on them — in what the company’s first president, Sean Parker, recently called “a social-­validation feedback loop.”
Sure, it is a golden age of free speech — if you can believe your lying eyes.
There are, moreover, no nutritional labels in this cafeteria.  For Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, all speech — whether it’s a breaking news story, a saccharine animal video, an anti-Semitic meme, or a clever advertisement for razors — is but “content,” each post just another slice of pie on the carousel.  A personal post looks almost the same as an ad, which looks very similar to a New York Times article, which has much the same visual feel as a fake newspaper created in an afternoon.
What’s more, all this online speech is no longer public in any traditional sense.  Sure, Facebook and Twitter sometimes feel like places where masses of people experience things together simultaneously.  But in reality, posts are targeted and delivered privately, screen by screen by screen.  Today’s phantom public sphere has been fragmented and submerged into billions of individual capillaries.  Yes, mass discourse has become far easier for everyone to participate in — but it has simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back.  Behind everyone’s backs.
    —    Zeynep Tufekci
From her article:  “It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech
Appearing in:  Wired Magazine;  dtd:  February 2018
On-line at:  https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/
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