This is going to be American-centric. I’m sorry about that. The assumptions I make about how the world works are shaped by my environment. I know they’re not always global perspectives. And in this case, that shows more than usual.
We should probably start with the primary source. Here’s the text of the first amendment to the US Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Does that say what you thought it did?
The bits about religion and assembly are important, but we’re focusing on speech here, so let’s simply this a bit. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”
That means I can say whatever I want, right?
No. Not exactly. The government can’t interfere with your expression of ideas merely because it doesn’t agree with them. And without getting into the weeds on this, know that there are all kinds of exceptions to the rule. It’s definitely not as absolute as the statement appears.
But your right to say whatever you want does not guarantee you an audience or a forum or access to any means of dissemination. You can stand in the town common and preach your gospel (again, with certain exceptions). But nobody has to stop and listen to you.
You don’t have a right to do that on my front porch.
You don’t have a right to do that in the comments on this blog post.
You don’t have a right to do that in my Twitter feed.
But it’s not really my Twitter feed, is it? It’s Twitter’s feed. They get to decide whose voices will be heard. They get to decide that they’re not going to allow hate speech. Or gay-bashing. Or violent threats against women. Maybe, on their front porch, they think it’s okay to encourage people to overthrow the government. Maybe they think it’s fine that people mock those who are poor or have mental health challenges or root for the Wolverines. They’re not the government. They have no duty to protect your free speech rights. They can make whatever rules they want. It’s their porch.
So what if you don’t like their rules? Well, if you have an unlimited supply of money, you can just buy Twitter. Then, you can make your own rules. Or, if you prefer, you can buy the Washington Post and start a cable news channel. Or, you can buy 193 TV stations and make your own rules about what “local news” is worth reporting. Just build your own front porch, and invite the world to sit on your lawn and listen to you. If you have the money, your speech can be a bit more free than everyone else’s.
In a world of digital abundance, where is the voice of the common person, exactly? Where CAN we say whatever we want? Public spaces are pretty limited in the number of people that can be reached. I could print documents and distribute them, but that is expensive and time consuming and still doesn’t have a very wide reach. All of the traditional publication methods pale in comparison to mass media and digital.
I can write whatever I want on my blog, though, right? Not really. This blog is hosted on WordPress.com. There’s a whole list of things that I can’t say (see section 7). I could set up my own server to get around these, but my Internet provider has rules, too. All I have to do is post an mp4 of a Disney film and we’ll see how long it takes for me to lose my Internet access.
Free speech doesn’t really exist for most people.
The Internet was supposed to fix that. It was supposed to be more democratic. It gave the means of publication to the masses. It allowed anyone to be a content provider. So many new voices could be heard. There’s room on the long tail for a plurality of opinions and perspectives. We were so optimistic. We were so altruistic.
But, as it turns out, people gravitate toward the loudest voices. Provocative statements generate clicks. And clicks generate money. So we amplify the crazy. We give the megaphone to the carnival barkers of the world, and it doesn’t matter that ring toss game is rigged or that the flea circus has no actual fleas. I don’t think anyone saw how powerful disinformation could be.
We have somehow lost the idea that we should take responsibility for our actions. Our words should have consequences. Free speech is great when we’re exchanging ideas and perspectives. I should be able to criticize my government, or speak out about environmental or social justice issues. I should be able to celebrate the accomplishments of my heroes, and condemn hypocrisy and injustice. But that’s getting more and more difficult.
We have to get back to integrity. We have to expect people to tell the truth all the time. We have to be able to stand on our credibility, and we need to judge others on their standards. This also means that we can’t be anonymous anymore. The cowards hide their lies under the blanket of anonymity.
Ultimately, it goes all the way back to the cheetahs. Information has a source, and that source is an integral part of its credibility. We have to be much more critical of our sources, and expect them to tell the truth. And when they don’t, we have to stop giving them the microphone. Stop clicking their links. Stop repeating their lies. Get off their front porch.
The loudest people are the richest people. And the richest people didn’t become the richest people by having your best interests in mind.