Can free speech survive the internet?

by Thomas R. Wells

OriginalThe internet has made it easier than ever to speak to others. It has empowered individuals, allowing us to publish our opinions without convincing a publishing company of their commercial value; to find and share others' views on matters we concern ourselves with without the fuss of photocopying and mailing newspaper clippings; and to respond to those views without the limitations of a newspaper letter page. In this sense the internet has been a great boon to the freedom of speech.

Yet that very ease of communication has brought problems of its own that may actually limit the freedom part of free speech, the ability to speak our mind to those we wish without fear of reprisal.


The first problem is that what was once a difficult endeavour – to bring our words to the attention of others – is becoming difficult to avoid. An increasing amount of speech and its proxies, such as the expression of preferences, is subject to automatic publication to the world. If not by us, if we are very careful with all our privacy settings, then by the devices and apps of those we talk to. It is becoming hard to guarantee a private conversation.

That matters because the way one expresses oneself in conversation, to specific people, is not how one sets out one's thoughts to the world, when one is trying to reach and impress strangers with one's ideas. The old difference between speech and publication, and all the pains publication required, respected that distinction.

Speech is extemporary. It is often part of an ongoing relationship in which the parties know each other and have a common knowledge and context to relate to. It may be experimental in style and content, especially between people who know each other well, reflecting not your settled views but ideas you are curious about and phrasings your want to try out. There are often bad jokes and failed lines of reasoning and backtrackings, and this is normal and forgivable because everyone understands that conversation is dialectical, an attempt to make progress together. In persuading another it is normal to reach for the ad hominem approach, to adapt your arguments to the capacities, inclinations, and beliefs of those one is talking to.

Publication in contrast is – or was – a distinct and daunting undertaking, requiring much diligence and prudence in framing a particular expression of your ideas that may stand the test of the scrutiny of all sorts of readers without your being able to step in to explain what you meant.

The same form of words must do the job of communicating to everyone and hence it must be written for no one in particular. Furthermore, the conversation about it may take place outside your purview, and among readers inclined to rationalise their instinctive antipathy to your ideas without the goodwill of the typical conversation partner. As Plato has Socrates put in Phaedrus,

“And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.”

When all speech becomes a publication, or at least it is increasingly difficult to guarantee that it will not, one's casual remarks will be set before the world and may be judged by anyone. The effect of this, I fear, will be what we have already seen in politicians (except Trump, of course) who over the last 20 years have become increasingly careful about what they say because any gaffe can and will be stripped of its context and used to humiliate and destroy them, perhaps years later. Hence the general complaint that politicians sound like robots and never venture spontaneous remarks or seem to engage fully with the people they are talking to. They don't dare.

As has been shown by recent scandals involving Nobel biologists and more ordinary folks like the poor woman who tweeted a bad joke about AIDS before getting on a plane to Africa, we are all of us now in the same boat as the politicians, one failed joke away from pariahdom and unemployment.


The problem is compounded by the global character of internet publication. Previously, publication usually came with an audience. If one was publishing in a magazine, for example, one would have some idea of the interests and views of its few thousands of readers and how to talk to them. Books were trickier, but at least one knew in which country they would be sold. Nowadays one cannot predict at all where one's words will end up. Even language doesn't seem to limit their reach. So a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons of Mohammed to make a local political point winds up being the subject of moral disgust and protest half a world away, bringing its whole country into disrepute and perhaps danger. So a respectable Dutch broadsheet newspaper draws the righteous indignation of Democrat America, and the editor's only defence is the outdated “The n-word is an English word and has a less offensive meaning in Dutch. We hadn't thought that it would be read in the US.”

These days it is not enough to consider how your words will appear to the people you would like to read them. You must bear in mind that anyone at all might discover them, share them with like-minded souls via social media, and hold you answerable to their moral standards. Efficient search engines also play a role by making it easy to search for offensive references to yourself and what is dear to you that you might otherwise never have found out about. For example professors or students who google their names may find awful and even hate-filled conversations about them on student chatrooms, like this one, and feel desolated and even fearful as a result. The increased capability for discovering insults means that you must expect that the very kind of people you would least like to have read your words are the very people most likely to find them. You may be liable to legal sanctions or a twitter shame mob.


The second problem is that the internet makes it much easier for individuals to use speech as a weapon, and not only the assholes looking to offend, by posting videos like the Innocence of Muslims or barraging women in public life with rape threats.

Although hardly anyone cares that you said something offensive, or something that a strained reading could find offensive – apparently in the Nobel biologist's case only one person in the audience chose to interpret his remarks literally – a few people will care, and social media allows them to come together to concentrate their moral outrage. The shame mobs that spontaneously form may only number in the tens of thousands but they nonetheless exercise enormous collective power at the costs of a few seconds of their attention and a couple of clicks. Humans are social animals after all. We aren't built to withstand a tsunami of personal abuse, which may become a news item in its own right that Google will forever associate with our name. Not to mention that many of those righteously indignant people will thoughtfully turn their attention to your employer and publicly demand to know why someone as evil as you hasn't been fired. The internet allows ordinary people to exercise 18th Century mob justice in a 20th Century way, destroying people's lives bloodlessly from their mobile phones thousands of miles away.


The internet has enhanced our free speech in an imbalanced way: greater ease of reaching others with our speech has come at the expense of our freedom to speak without fear of reprisal. Full scale shame mobs are still rare or course, but that is not all we have to fear. Employers googling you before job interviews may write you off on the basis of some ill-considered outburst you made on twitter years ago, the kind of ugly remark that might once have existed for only a few moments between friends at a bar after work, before being kindly forgotten by those who knew it wasn't the real you talking. Likewise the guy you asked out on a date or the parents of the children you teach may judge you by the single worst thing you ever said in the mistaken belief that it represents who you are.

We are going to have to adapt ourselves psychologically and institutionally to our new powers of speech. There are several approaches we might take. None of them are very attractive, but perhaps some combination will be arrived at that isn't so bad.

First, we could learn to censor ourselves, and teach our children from a very early age, to never say anything that we wouldn't be happy for the whole world to read in the length of a tweet. Certainly we should be more careful what we say, out of care for others as well as prudence. But the full internalisation of responsibility for everything we say it would be the end of liberalism.

Speech is protected because it is intimately linked to thought – speaking is thinking together. Liberalism starts from respect for the autonomy of the individual to form their own opinions on the right and the good. If we fear to think aloud because we fear the wrath of some part of society then we are not free to form our own opinions anymore. The fact that it isn't the government that tyrannises over us is irrelevant.

Second, we could each try to develop the shamelessness of a Donald Trump, who treats internet infamy as a game he can win and seems to actually prosper from the outrage he inspires. A society of Trumps though is a rather depressing prospect. In any case, just because you're not ashamed of that silly twitter joke doesn't mean you won't lose your job.

Third, we could call on the government to save us from the mob, for example by restricting how search engines deliver the results of personal name searches; installing fire-breaks in social media networks that make the formation of flash mobs less likely; making it illegal to fire the target of a shame mob without cause and due process; regulating social media networks to make it easier to keep private conversations from becoming public publications; making it easier to sue twitterers for defamation and threatening messages, and Twitter for enabling it; and so on. This is censorship in the name of freedom of speech, which is problematic in principle, and, given the international character of the internet, would also be problematic in practice.

Fourth, society could reconfigure its thresholds for moral disgust and indignation. It is trivially easy to find something on the internet that will outrage you to your core. But perhaps we will eventually adapt to the lower level of privacy and hence the lower quality of people's thoughts that are being published to the world. Perhaps we will also come to recognise that existing in a constant state of outrage about what strangers on the other side of the world are doing isn't all that great a way to live and neither does it do anything to make our society better. Perhaps we will use our new powers of speech to talk about that instead.