Free speech up for sale

When I was planning to post this article a couple of weeks ago, Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter and take it into private ownership was looking unlikely to succeed. Musk had just declined to take up the offer of a seat on the Twitter board, following which the board adopted a poison-pill defence against a hostile takeover. And just as I was about to go to press at my usual time, the news broke that the original bid had now been accepted by the board, so I hit the pause button instead and waited a day to see what the public reaction was. What a difference 72 hours (and US$44bn) can make… It seems “free speech” does indeed come with a price.

Of course, the Twitter transaction is still subject to shareholder approval and regulatory clearance, as well as confirmation of the funding structure, since Musk is having to raise about half the stated purchase from banks.

Musk’s stated objective in acquiring Twitter was highlighted in a press release put out by the company:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Mr. Musk. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

This latest development in Musk’s apparent love/hate relationship with Twitter is bound to further divide existing users as to the billionaire’s intentions, as well as raise concerns about the broader implications for free speech. Musk himself has encouraged his “worst critics” to stay with the platform. Meanwhile, founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey has renewed his love of Twitter, despite only recently stepping away from the top job to spend more time on his other interests.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned that a platform such as Twitter is in private hands or under single ownership (subject, of course, to anti-trust rules, etc.). Far from creating an entrenched monopoly, it may actually encourage more competition by those who decide to opt out of Twitter. What I am less comfortable with is the notion that Twitter somehow acts as an exemplar of free speech, and as such, is a bastion of democracy.

On the positive side, we will be able to judge the veracity of Musk’s objectives against his actual deeds. For example, will Twitter actually introduce an edit button, make its algorithms open-source, exorcise the spam bots, verify users, and reduce/remove the platform’s reliance upon advertising?

On the negative side, what credible stance will Twitter now take on “free speech”, short of allowing an “anything goes” policy? If Musk is sincere that Twitter will be a platform for debating “matters vital to the future of humanity”, he may need to modify what he means by public discourse. Personal slanging matches with fellow-billionaires (and those less-able to defend themselves) do not make for an edifying public debating forum. Musk’s own disclosures about Twitter and his other business interests will also come under increased scrutiny. We know from past experience that Elon’s Tweets can move markets, and for this alone he should be aware of the responsibility that comes with ownership of the platform.

We have long understood that free speech is not the same as an unfettered right to say what you like in public – there are limits to freedom of expression, including accountability for the consequences of our words and actions, especially where they can cause harm. The broader challenges we face are:

  • technology outpacing regulation, when it comes to social media
  • defining what it means to “cause offence”
  • increased attacks on “mainstream media” and threats to freedom of the press

1. Just as the printing press, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting and the internet each resulted in legislative changes, social media has continued to test the boundaries of regulation under which its predecessors now operate. Hitherto, much of the regulation that applies to social and digital media relates to privacy and data protection, as well as the existing law of defamation. But the latter varies considerably by jurisdiction, and by access to redress, and availability of remedies. Social media platforms have resisted attempts to treat them as traditional media (newspapers and broadcasters, which are subject to licensing and/or industry codes of practice) or treat them as publishers (and therefore responsible for content published on their platforms). (Then there is the question of how some social media platforms manage their tax affairs in the countries where they derive their revenue.)

The Australian government is attempting to challenge social media companies in a couple of ways. The first has been to force these platforms to pay for third-party news content from which they directly and indirectly generate advertising income. The second aims to hold social media more accountable for defamatory content published on their platforms, and remove the protection of “anonymity”. However, the former might be seen as a (belated) reaction to changing business models, and largely acting in favour of incumbents; while the latter is a technical response to the complex law of defamation in the digital age.

2. The ability to be offended by what we see or hear on social media is now at such a low bar as to be almost meaningless. During previous battles over censorship in print, on stage or on screen, the argument could be made that, “if you don’t like something you aren’t being forced to watch it”, so maybe you are deliberately going in search of content just to find it offensive. The problem is, social media by its very nature is more pervasive and, fed by hidden algorithms, is actually more invasive than traditional print and broadcast media. Even as a casual, passive or innocent user, you cannot avoid seeing something that may “offend” you. Economic and technical barriers to entry are likewise so low, that anyone and everyone can have their say on social media.

Leaving aside defamation laws, the concept of “hate speech” is being used to target content which is designed to advocate violence, or can be reasonably deemed or expected to have provoked violence or the threat of harm (personal, social or economic). I have problems with how we define hate speech in the current environment of public commentary and social media platforms, since the causal link between intent and consequence is not always that easy to establish.

However, I think we can agree that the use of content to vilify others simply based on their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, political affiliation or religious identity cannot be defended on the grounds of “free speech”, “fair comment” or “personal belief”. Yet how do we discourage such diatribes without accusations of censorship or authoritarianism, and how do we establish workable remedies to curtail the harmful effects of “hate speech” without infringing our civil liberties?

Overall, there is a need to establish the author’s intent (their purpose as well as any justification), plus apply a “reasonable person” standard, one that does not simply affirm confirmation bias of one sector of society against another. We must recognise that hiding behind our personal ideology cannot be an acceptable defence against facing the consequences of our actions.

3. I think it’s problematic that large sections of the traditional media have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to their ethical standards, and their willingness to misuse their public platforms, economic power and political influence to undertake nefarious behaviour and/or deny any responsibility for their actions. Think of the UK’s phone hacking scandals, which resulted in one press baron being deemed “unfit to run a company”, as well as leading to the closure of a major newspaper.

That said, it hardly justifies the attempts by some governments, populist leaders and authoritarian regimes to continuously undermine the integrity of the fourth estate. It certainly doesn’t warrant the prosecution and persecution of journalists who are simply trying to do their job, nor attacks and bans on the media unless they “tow the party line”.

Which brings me back to Twitter, and its responsibility in helping to preserve free speech, while preventing its platform being hijacked for the purposes of vilification and incitement to cause harm. If its new owner is serious about furthering public debate and mature discourse, then here are a few other enhancements he might want to consider:

  • in addition to an edit button, a “cooling off” period whereby users are given the opportunity to reconsider a like, a post or a retweet, based on user feedback or community interaction – after which time, they might be deemed responsible for the content as if they were the original author (potentially a way to mitigate “pile-ons”)
  • signing up to a recognised industry code of ethics, including a victim’s formal right of reply, access to mediation, and enforcement procedures and penalties against perpetrators who continually cross the line into vilification, or engage in content that explicitly or implicitly advocates violence or harm
  • a more robust fact-checking process and a policy of “truth in advertising” when it comes to claims or accusations made by or on behalf of politicians, political parties, or those seeking elected office
  • clearer delineation between content which is mere opinion, content which is in the nature of a public service (e.g., emergencies and natural disasters), content which is deemed part of a company’s public disclosure obligations, content which is advertorial, content which is on behalf of a political party or candidate, and content which is purely for entertainment purposes only (removing the bots may not be enough)
  • consideration of establishing an independent editorial board that can also advocate on behalf of alleged victims of vilification, and act as the initial arbiter of “public interest” matters (such as privacy, data protection, whistle-blowers etc.)

Finally, if Twitter is going to remove/reduce advertising, what will the commercial model look like?

Next week: The Crypto Conversation

Synchronicity

I’m not sure I fully subscribe to Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, where causally unrelated events occur at the same time, and seemingly take on a significant meaning; in many cases, a coincidence is just that. But recently I have been forced to consider the possibility that maybe Jung was right.

Over the past few months, I have been reading the 12 novels that comprise Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”. Although I had never read them before, the books were familiar to me through a BBC Radio adaptation broadcast between 1979 and 1982, and a UK television mini-series from 1997.

Last weekend, and quite unrelated, a friend posted some music on-line – recordings made by the band we were in during the early 1980s. One of the tracks was a song I had written at that time, and whose title had been inspired by Powell’s magnum opus. But I hadn’t listened to or thought about this song for nearly 40 years.

Separately, and also by coincidence, in the last couple of days I have been listening to “The New Anatomy of Melancholy”, another BBC Radio series that draws its inspiration (and title) from Robert Burton’s 17th century tract on mood disorders. This series was first broadcast in May 2020 – no doubt prompted by the onset of the global pandemic, with its lock-downs, self-isolation and increased anxiety. And now the programme is being repeated, exactly 400 years after the publication of Burton’s original treatise – and at a time when we need his sage advice more than ever.

Until now, I hadn’t appreciated how self-absorbed (obsessed?) Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is by Burton – he even ends up publishing an academic text about this prescient Elizabethan writer. On one level, Jenkins is a proxy for his literary hero (as well as being Powell’s alter ego), and much of the 12-novel sequence is a response to Burton’s analysis on the causes of, and cures for, melancholia.

All of which may or may not prove Jung’s theory, but there is for me something of a personal thread between Powell, a song I wrote, and the BBC’s recent update on Burton.

Next week: The Last Half-Mile

Cancel or Recalibrate?

In the wake (sic) of wokeness and cancel culture, it was interesting to read that Disney has decided to add a health warning of “negative depictions of cultures” to re-runs of the Muppet Show. So rather than cancel these programmes, it has chosen to (re-)contextualise the content for a contemporary audience.

I don’t have a problem with this type of labelling, or indeed on any other content, if it helps to aid understanding, generate debate, and acknowledge past lapses of taste or judgement. Especially as programmes like the Muppet Show were huge in the heyday of mass-market network television, before cable and streaming fragmented audiences into pre-defined sub-genres and segregated demographics.

Indeed, I’ve grown used to similar health warnings attached to re-runs of many BBC radio dramas, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when “social attitudes were somewhat different to today”.

But, if we continue along those lines, should we be applying similar health warnings to Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedies, French farces, Norse legends, European folklore as told by the Brothers Grimm, or Roman accounts of gladiatorial victories over their hapless victims?

In which case, I look forward to the same contextualisation (and health warnings) of any programmes that quote, cite, promote or reference key religious texts, most of which were written hundreds and thousands of years ago, yet which similarly offend our current values and societal norms.

Next week – Facebook and that news ban

From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.

To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.

What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.

The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.

This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.

I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.

Next week: Is the Party over?