A war for truth in the era of cheap speech

by Chris Zappone

Change, change, constant change.

Since the 2016 election there’s been a lot of discussion about a war on democracy. I myself have accepted that view.

But maybe a “war to defend democracy” isn’t what’s going on globally. It may instead be  a war on truth. After all, we need a basic level of truthfulness in the public sphere for an effective democracy to function.

Not only do we need a factual accounting of what’s happening in society and the world, we need a culture that respects facts enough to allow them to shape our thinking about the direction of a nation.

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Maybe not the right analogy…

What has really changed since the 20th Century is not social media, or trolling, or bots, but the broader technology that allows incredibly cheap speech in the first place.

Yet so many of the ideas around defending free speech are wedded to earlier communications technology in which published speech was scarce and costly.

Decades ago, in order to publish something it took significant resources. There was a much higher barrier to entry into the business. If people invested the resources in publishing or broadcasting then they sought to have their right to continue to publish and distribute defended, that included maintaining access to the public via air waves, print distribution, even the postal system.

Now the issue is not so much the ability to publish because we are overwhelmed with published words online.

Instead, the issue today is for the public to have collective access to reliable, relatively coherent information. It is their democratic right.

In the US it doesn’t help that the White House promotes propaganda. It creates a situation in which absolute slop can be mixed with factual content very easily.

And it’s this environment that makes weaponised narratives so prevalent and so easy to generate.

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Many ideas around free speech wedded to older technology (Wikicommons)

Today, technology allows you to find the words that suit whatever your point of view is, rather than having to change your point of view based on the reported reality.

So there is a disconnect between the laws, custom, and institutions that support free speech – and the information reality confronting those laws, customs and institutions today.

When consumer rights activist Ralph Nader in 1976 successfully used a free speech argument argument against a law prohibited prescription drugs prices being published, corporations and the right wing organizations began to follow suit.

Their legal strategies coincided with the information revolution that has ensued. It has allowed the endless creation of organizations and causes and thinktanks to form and shape public discussion.

If these combined groups can dominate the discussion, they can wield power. And the success of the conservative movement in the US has hinged on its ability to communicate unmediated with their voters, first via coordinated mailouts, talk back radio, Fox News and rightwing think tanks – and now it’s morphed into a full-blown propaganda and disinformation machine, mimicking Russian propaganda tactics.

We are passing through, what media critic Marshall McLuhan had described as a sort of “flip”.

That’s when one information environment gives way to another, permanently altering the experience of the participants.

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Marshall McLuhan

And so slowly, slowly, the institutions that support the freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and lawful dissent, must accustom themselves to a world where the dissenter doesn’t need legal help to access the public commons, as much as the public needs help defending its right to a lawful, productive, democratic discussion in the commons.

Now, we see how the American Civil Liberties Union is adjusting to an environment in which “free speech” is often used as a shield for chaos and fear. Historically, the civil rights group could look the other way even as it defended Nazis. But the new information environment of cheap speech has altered the dynamic.

“When we have reason to believe that individuals purportedly seeking to exercise their First Amendment rights are in fact intending to engage in unlawful incitement, violence, true threats, physical obstruction, or destruction of property, we should decline representation,” the ACLU wrote in its Case Selection Guidelines: Conflicts Between Competing Values or Priorities paper.

As University of California Irvine professor Richard Hasen wrote: “In the era of cheap speech, some shifts in 1st Amendment doctrine seem desirable to assist citizens in ascertaining the truth.”

This is all a recognition of the way free speech is being used, in this new information environment, as a weapon by groups whose goals aren’t to preach a particular heresy against the common convention, but to take part in a conspiracy to undermine the democratic system as a whole.

Speech is so inexpensive for these groups to form that they can be created almost overnight on a smart phone. They can exist primarily on social media rather than in reality while still shifting public perceptions.

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Today: no scarcity of published content (White House photo)

None of this suggests we’re losing our appetite for freedom of speech in a democracy.

We just have to recognize that in a time of endless free speech, speech can be used in new and novel ways, and the front line in the defense of liberal, enlightenment-based values has shifted.

If institutions and organizations involved in the defense of free expression have to re-imagine how they’re going to look at the concept of free speech in a time when everyone has ability to produce and access vast flows of content (even for propaganda and disinformation reasons), governments may need to be thinking this way too in their battle against misinformation and weaponised narratives.

After all, governments step in where the problem is too big or complex for any one individual to address.

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When publishing cost: The Age loading dock in Melbourne, Australia in 1908 (Fairfax Archives)

A government-related effort to counter the effects of propaganda would not be about restricting speech. Banning people or blocking accounts is how things would have worked in a time when there was scarcity to published speech.

Today, countering misinformation and propaganda is about adding a dimension to speech. Such an effort would produce context on whether or not a particular topic was subject to efforts to manipulate or strategically amplify it. The goal of this added context would be to make genuine reported reality stand out, above the constant din of misinformation, propaganda and confusion.

In a broader sense, with the cost of published speech plummeting to nearly zero, the emphasis shifts from a discussion of banning accounts and topics, to a discussion of what exactly you want to protect in an open democracy.

The issue of fighting weaponised narratives and disinformation then is really not so much about fighting, but about promoting the quality and the reason of speech needed for a functional democracy. It’s about fighting for a sensible democratic discussion.

These ideas are detailed in this Australian National University NSC paper “Addressing Australia’s Vulnerability to Weaponised Information Narratives”.

The paper states: “The low barrier of entry to producing content along with existing confirmation bias makes generating [weaponised] narratives extremely easy. Repetition helps them grow and become accepted.”

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How to defend this?

Every age has similarities to the past.

For us in 2018, it’s easy to look back to the 20th Century for a guide. The 20th Century witnessed a defence of democracy in the face of military aggression, political warfare, hostile ideology.

However, maybe the reality today is that democracy hasn’t changed and is still vital. But it just can’t thrive or even survive on a diet of mis-perceptions and lies. At least not forever.

For that reason, we need to think again about our approach to defending the truth in the public in this era.

Citizens must think first about what kind of values they are defending: openness, tolerance, the ability to deliberate, the freedom to disagree, healthy skepticism for power.

Citizens may also need to think about the underlying values they are trying to defend, then think about how best for institutions to position themselves to begin to fight for these values in a time and place of information overload and cheap speech.

The goal could be to ensure that a reasonable democracy is capable of functioning despite the information chaos enabled by new technology.

In this approach, it’s not about banning anything, but rather, adding to the discussion in a way that counterbalances the destabalisation caused by misinformation.

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