Silicon Valley’s vision of the internet is built largely on a type of free speech absolutism which for a long time recognized nearly all speech as equal. Until 2016, the industry embraced a definition of “free speech” that placed itself at the center of the debate as private-sector guarantor of this freedom. The position conveniently allowed its vast dumb machines to operate with a bare minimum of human oversight, relative to the number of users.
The confusing part of this position was the use of the word “free” because what these platforms facilitated wasn’t liberty in the ordinary sense- but a sort of simulation of it.
Esteemed author Peter Pomerantsev explains it best:
“On social media you can express yourself to your heart’s content, but your online speech is then transmuted into data, sold to data brokers and on to political forces that will use your speech to target you with customized messages without you ever knowing or understanding when how or why you are being influenced.”
You feel free expressing yourself but you are subject to manipulation you aren’t privy to understand, or see. The words and images you choose as a reflection of your personal thoughts are sifted by a machine, sorted and instrumentalised to work upon you, and against you.
People can say whatever they please, but their expression on the platform is just the public part of an interaction. The words and pictures generated by humans are the input that is linked to an output social media users are instrumentalized with.
We talk about freedom, or unfreedom. This is more like a simulation of freedom. Sham freedom. Or, perhaps, “phreedom.”