There are many freedoms which are cherished in the United States, as outlined in the Bill of Rights. These freedoms were specifically enumerated to curtail the power of the government. Key provisions reserved for individuals can be found in the very first of the ten amendments made to the U.S. 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.”
Individuals were given the right to speak their minds, to associate with people of their own choosing and to publicly write and disseminate materials without government interference. The government was specifically limited in forcing upon people a particular narrative.
That was in 1791.
Several items have changed the way Americans and (much of the world) view these key principles of freedom:
- The Internet and social media have enabled people to have platforms which can reach every corner of the world, making each person potentially more influential than the mainstream media
- The mainstream media’s business model has been collapsing as money from classifieds and advertising abandoned the press for those new media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with greater reach, driving the remaining corporate media titans to become more partisan and inflammatory in their content to retain and attract viewership
- Social media is not simply a soap box nor bulletin board, but includes a range of sophisticated algorithms which direct viewers towards a prioritized list of media to consume, making the platforms themselves powerful disseminaters of information
These first three points are critical to understanding the tension between the democratization of the press: how large media companies backed by large corporate advertising dollars are dissolving in the face of smaller and more niche sources of media. Those smaller media sources can survive as hobbies of individuals and can attract micro-audiences and some actually become larger than the historic media agencies.
Against this democratization of the press which has unfolded over the past two decades is the growth of global terrorism:
- History has shown (the Holocaust) how propaganda can quickly descend into a genocide of innocent people prompting the introductions of hate speech laws which inherently limit free speech
- World leaders and the press have presented their case that leading global terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al Qaeda effectively recruited individuals online, and have pushed the social media platforms to remove the content of those organizations
- Governments have similarly asked the social media platforms to alter their algorithms to intersperse a range of ideas to people who may be searching for niche extremist ideas
Lastly, in addition to the democratization of the press and growth of terrorism prompting governments to intervene in the business of social media, is the more general backdrop of society and how social media is currently used:
- Foreign governments (Russia) used social media to influence the 2016 U.S. elections
- Fake news stories online prompted people to take violent action (Clinton’s “Pizzagate“)
- And in the realm of free speech, progressives and global organizations like the United Nations have insisted on a range protective speech laws, such as banning the use of religion connected to extremism (cannot say “Islamic terrorists“) or that people must address individuals by the pronoun of their choice or risk being fired and/or fined as an expanded form of hate speech (NYC law: “refusal to use a transgender employee’s name, pronouns, or title may constitute unlawful gender-based harassment“)
Taken together, governments and global organizations are infringing on many freedoms in the stated desired hope of promoting a more peaceful and inclusive society.
It sounds noble as a goal and problematic in practice. Limiting speech that incites violence is logical and lawful, but calling non-violent speech a form of illegal “microaggression” is an assault on the First Amendment. Perhaps a person could get over a very limited number of restrictions if the world would indeed become more peaceful. Perhaps, but that is beside the point here.
The issue is that the limitations on individual speech and associations online are being advanced while the mainstream media is becoming ever more inflammatory and biased. The dynamic that governments were held in check by a free press in a balance of power with the press acting as a guardian of the people is a principle which may have had a shelf life from 1791 to 2000, but no longer applies in a world where the people’s voices are just as loud.
Consider two statements made by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres over the last few days:
On social media contributing to hatred and violence: “Around the world, we are seeing a disturbing groundswell of intolerance and hate-based violence targeting worshipers of many faiths. In recent days alone, a synagogue in the United States and a church in Burkina Faso have come under attack….
Parts of the Internet are becoming hothouses of hate, as like-minded bigots find each other online, and platforms serve to inflame and enable hate to go viral. As crime feeds on crime, and as vile views move from the fringes to the mainstream, I am profoundly concerned that we are nearing a pivotal moment in battling hatred and extremism.
That is why I have set in motion two urgent initiatives: devising a plan of action to fully mobilize the United Nations system’s response to tackling hate speech, led by my Special Representative on Genocide Prevention; and exploring how the United Nations can contribute in ensuring the safety of religious sanctuaries, an effort being led by my High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations.”
On Freedom of the Press: “A free press is essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights. No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power….
When media workers are targeted, societies as a whole pay a price. On World Press Freedom Day, I call on all to defend the rights of journalists, whose efforts help us to build a better world for all.“
The concepts that the head of the U.N. put forward taken together are ancient: the press is no longer the vehicle for “transparent and reliable information.” It is as jaundiced and bigoted as social media. Protecting the press while quashing social media would be the opposite of speaking truth to power; it would be empowering the press at the expense of the people, not in favor of the people.
Consider the leading mainstream media organization The New York Times. It’s portrayal of the Israeli-Arab Conflict is beyond biased. It posts articles and cartoons vilifying Jews and the Jewish State over and again while it whitewashes the antisemitism of Palestinians. Should the bigots of The NY Times control the narrative while individuals on social media explaining Muslim antisemitism be silenced? Who gets to decide if liberal or conservative ideas have a right to be shared or censored?
Journalists are no longer limited to the large press organizations but can be found throughout social media. Their rights must be defended as vigorously as any.
A free press without free speech for all would be a tyranny of the worst sort.
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