Remembering the Information Superhighway… next stop: Democracy!
Click here to read Pt II. The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?
On Free Speech III. Craft Displacement
“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”
– Ellis Cose
In his interview, Ellis Cose attributes greater allotment of free speech to those with media access and financial clout, such as politicians, corporations, and individuals who may control either or both of these. Where something can’t be more free than “free,” let’s take his point to mean that more free speech is more opportunity, more prominence, a wider audience – “more” essentially being more accessibility. We might expect more accessibility to translate into more impact, simply by sheer weight of volume if not vetted credibility. Into the larger consideration of free speech Cose offers this nuance of accessibility against an historical standard, below, by which free speech, being free, is a great equalizer:
“Speech may be fought with speech. Falsehoods and fallacies must be exposed, not suppressed, unless there is not sufficient time to avert the evil consequences of noxious doctrine by argument and education. That is the command of the First Amendment.”
Against this notion, Cose points particularly at the Internet and its associated media. A consideration of its global spread and interminable flow, put to use by nearly everyone – particularly by those politicians, corporations, and controlling individuals – ought to give everyone pause:
- voices previously unheard can today access audiences previously unreachable
- page views can be drummed up algorithmically, or simply go viral all their own; in either circumstance…
- the potential for rapid profit now tempts an irresponsible publisher toward more revenue-generating click-bait; thus…
- nothing less than spectacle, vitriol, or fill-in-the-blank will do
- all this occurs, as anything must, in the zeitgeist of the times, which these days is decidedly emotional and specifically angry
Let me digress a moment and open a new window on financial incentives, algorithmic or otherwise… the flipside for publishers, media, and really any private business is that something unpopular corresponds to lost revenue. And if that’s an equal yet opposite incentive, it’s also just as mercenary. Not to be forgotten, either, is what the “free” in speech really means according to the First Amendment, specifically that government can take no action, outside a few negotiated exceptions, to deny people their public voice. This defines the boundaries of the freedom to speak in the public sphere. And what defines the boundaries of the public sphere? Questions, questions.
Meanwhile, in the private sphere, there are laws apart from the First Amendment that prohibit injurious and obscene forms of expression. Although, as in the public sphere, what’s injurious and obscene these days is up for negotiation, whether in court or, more and more commonly, pretty much anywhere and everywhere. And meanwhile, what even counts as “the private sphere”? Evidently, that’s subject to debate. Lawsuits, lawsuits. Oh, what a tangled web we’ve woven (… and, incidentally, it’s Freund’s book that provides the subtitles for Part I and Part II of this series).
In any case, despite a somewhat different standard, we still find within this wider scope of the rule of law a context for understanding the accountability of private media and publishing companies. Maybe, being as market-driven as anything else, we could consider the incentive to proffer appropriate free speech more wryly as “profit speech” – nothing less than popular, trendy flavour-of-the-month will do. I say maybe because not every company has a stellar record of accountability, which is a topic for another day but does implicate all that access and clout. On that score, since some private corporations and individuals have been known to bear an influence on politicians, we may also question how this conflation of public and private spheres affects free speech in either one.
For that, let’s go back to the Internet, which has massively amplified and accelerated all that access and clout, on top of the slew of details already mentioned. Engineered for uncomplicated access, rapid dissemination, unprecedented reach, and ubiquitous spread, the worldwide web has since become a relatively lawless e-zone, still a little beyond government regulatory control and lying in the hands of various… privateers? who are open for business. Once upon a time, a privateer was commissioned by a ruling power; today we might argue the reverse or, if we simply eliminate the state, as the Internet has arguably done, we could say that privateers are the ruling power. I’m not so sure they ever really weren’t.
Whatever… we can argue the Internet’s historical precedents. There’s even one vestige that remains a notable rival: the influence of talk radio may not have on-line profusion but, spanning decades and geography, it was making waves as the local toxic underbelly long before on-line Comments ever floated to the surface. Talk radio is fully immersed in access and clout as well as, in recent times, free speech – and, while we’re on the topic, how about complicity? Move over, financial incentives, now there’s something meaner: legal exposure. With that said, if you think talk radio’s strictly a conservative platform, let me assure you the most dominant station in these parts has long been a news-talk format that is today unabashedly liberal.
But again, I digress, again. Where was I?
Of course, the Internet. Free speech, other people. Curiously, what Cose offers about the Internet in a free speech context is all the more ironic since, once upon a time, the Internet was the great democratic equalizer. I suppose it still is, or else it can be, though like any tool, its effective usage takes some bit of skill.
For its accessibility and scope, on-line media amplifies and accelerates all our published speech as never we’ve known before: be it truth or falsehood, correct or misleading, accurate or mistaken, it’s all there, instagrammatically. And, apparently, we haven’t really been growing into the role of mastercrafting this tool, even while learning on the job – not building the plane while flying, to use the stale phrase.
Maybe that’s because what this tool we call the Internet imparts, as much as anything, is disembodiment. If there can be a divide between free speakers and the audience in the same room, what on earth could we expect in a chat room? Yet this consequence, like any other, is there to be understood and reckoned as we will, or as we won’t. Hard to blame the tool when it’s the craft.