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

Public Indifference?

A few weeks ago, two connected but unrelated news items caught my attention. The first concerned the death of an elderly man, who froze to death in plain sight on a busy city street. The second, published barely 10 days later, reported that the mummified body of an elderly woman was only found two years after she died. Much of the commentary surrounding both stories talked about public indifference (even callousness) and lack of concern for our neighbours, especially those who live alone.

I suspect that two years of pandemic, lock-downs and isolation have only amplified preexisting conditions. Depending on our perspective, we may choose not to do or say anything in these situations because: we don’t want to get involved, we don’t want to interfere, we don’t want to risk infection, we don’t feel adequately trained to deal with these situations, or we simply don’t have the time.

Scenarios like these can often make us think about how we might react in similar circumstances – the thing is, we won’t know until it happens. But equally, acquiring some basic skills or adopting some common protocols might help prevent future individual tragedies.

In my inner city suburb, during the pandemic, there has been a sense of “looking out” for your neighbours – some enterprising folk even organised local soup deliveries, and unwanted home produce was left by front gates. It was all totally spontaneous, but largely driven by existing relationships. If we want to do this properly, by fully respecting older neighbours’ independence whilst not interfering in their daily lives, we need some different community models.

One positive example came from the ABC’s inspirational documentary series, “Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds”. Although a large part of the outcome was to help older people in building up their physical and cognitive skills, by also framing it about boosting pre-schoolers’ social development, it underlined the longer-term community benefits of such initiatives. It also showed that in raising mutual awareness of the need for social interaction, and by creating a level of co- and inter-dependency, communities can find practical solutions and achievable outcomes, often using existing and available resources more creatively.

Next week: Ask an expert…

 

Doctrine vs Doctrinaire

The recent “debate” surrounding the Federal Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill was a staggering example of political overreach combined with poor policy management. It was also a stark reminder that although we live in a secular, pluralistic and liberal democracy, some politicians cannot refrain from bringing religion into the Parliament and on to the Statute Books, even where there was neither a strong mandate nor an overbearing need to change the existing law in the way the Government attempted.

As far as I can tell, the Bill was originally intended to give people of faith additional protection against discrimination on the basis of their religion. But when linked to related Sex Discrimination legislation, it would likely have given religious institutions some degree of protection against claims of discrimination in the areas of gender and sexual orientation, particularly in respect of children’s access to education and in relation to employment by faith-based organisations.

If that wasn’t worrying enough, the Bill was underpinned by a controversial “statements of belief” provision. As drafted, this would have granted a person immunity from prosecution for the consequences of their words or actions if such deeds were based on a “genuine” religious belief. I find this particularly troublesome, not because I think people should be vulnerable to persecution for their faith; rather, it sets a dangerous precedent for what religiously-motivated people may feel emboldened to do in the name of their particular faith, especially where their actions cause actual or genuine apprehension of harm (the “God told me to do it” defence).

The shift from doctrine to doctrinaire is all too palpable. It’s one thing to believe in Transubstination, yet another to use a public platform (including social media) to proclaim that “gays will burn in hell”  unless they renounce their ways. The problem with a very literal application of ancient religious texts (most of which are open to wide and sometimes contradictory interpretation) is that this approach does not allow for any concept of progress (scientific, cultural, societal). It also gives rise to extreme forms of fundamentalism, such as banning music or refusing to ordain women priests. History has also shown us that people purportedly adhering to the same religion frequently disagree, leading to turbulent schisms, violent sectarianism and untold bloodshed. Then there are the religious death cults that kill themselves and their children for the sake of achieving their own “beliefs” (in which their offspring surely couldn’t have been compliant or willing participants).

As Luke Beck wrote recently in The Conversation, “There is broad agreement a person should not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith or lack of faith. However, the extent to which religion should be a licence to discriminate against others remains enormously contentious.”

This putative “license” may be an unintended consequence of the Bill, but the implications, should it be enacted, could be far-reaching: archeologists being sacked for saying the earth is older than 6,000 years; anthropologists for saying that the first humans were living 2 million years ago; astronomers for saying the earth orbits around the sun…. And that’s just in the area of science.

I understand that a person of faith may have a deep-seated belief against birth control, or pre-marital sex, or alcohol, or tattoos, or marriage equality – but that doesn’t mean their faith should impose their choices on the rest of the population. (Just as people of faith aren’t being forced to consume booze or get inked against their will.) As it is, religious institutions enjoy significant tax benefits, public funding and legal exemptions, and this current “debate” is bringing some of these discrepancies into sharp focus.

The last time I looked, here in Australia we aren’t living in a theocracy, people of faith aren’t being fired from their jobs because of their religion, and secularists, agnostics and atheists aren’t calling for places of worship to be demolished. What the latter do expect is people of faith not to use their beliefs either as a pretext to justify any form of discriminatory, pejorative or harmful acts or statements, or as a protection against being accountable for their words and deeds.

Next week: When is a print not a print?

Gratitude and the Great Recharge

As I ease myself back into regular blogging following a summer hiatus, I’d like to begin by expressing an enormous sense of gratitude.

Last November, when I mentioned I was taking a break from blogging, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of readers who contacted me to check I was OK, several of whom let me know how much they appreciate reading my posts. To each of them (and they know who they are) I am extremely grateful. It’s that level of connection and feedback that helps to make the effort worthwhile.

One of my objectives in going offline for a few weeks was to take stock after nearly two years of disruption, and come back refreshed and re-energised. Like many other people, I was feeling drained and demoralised after multiple lockdowns, extended social disconnection, pitiful political failures, and increasing verbal (and physical) assaults on our notions of liberal democracy. I badly needed a change of perspective.

I was trying to come up with a suitable tag to summarise this goal, and realised that so many terms I thought of have come to be associated with pejorative meanings: the Great Reset, the Great Awakening (or Awokening, depending on your viewpoint), and the Great Resignation were among them.

So instead, I landed upon the Great Recharge.

For me, it evokes a physical energy boost, as well as a mental reframing on how to reflect on the past two years, and identify a way forward. The latter is about more than developing a coping mechanism. It is about retuning my responses to the information we are bombarded with – daily news, social media, advertising, propaganda, mis- and dis-information – and not letting it annoy me or provoke me. Because that is the reaction that the protagonists are looking for, and many of them are not being honest about their agenda, their vested interests, or their sponsors and backers.

As a result, I am trying to block out what is unimportant (not worth the effort of engagement), and not worry about those things I don’t have any immediate control over. By prioritising what really interests me, I feel I can be more creative, positive, enthusiastic and energising. Hopefully, I can be more connected to what really matters (and in the end, focus on what gives me joy). That way, I believe I can create less stress and inflict less emotional damage by not perpetuating the negative energy generated by protagonists who only want their audience to rise to the bait.

If I don’t like something, and as long as I’m not being forced to watch, read or listen to it, then I can simply choose not to give it air time. (“If you can’t say something constructive, it’s better to say nothing.”)

It’s not always easy  – look at all the trash talk, sledging and character assassination that permeates politics, sport, academia, culture and media. It’s pervasive, corrosive, and debilitating – and what makes it worse is that most times, the perpetrators are being paid to bad mouth the targets of their bile. Perhaps we can take a lead from Rafael Nadal, and let the ball do the talking….

Next week: Startupbootcamp Virtual Demo Day – Decarbonize