A Global Framework for Expression
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Feb 21

A Global Framework for Expression

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

This episode explores the global framework for protecting the freedom of expression and the challenges in establishing any universal agreement.  We discuss the impact of social media and bots on the spread of false information and the difficulty in determining credibility and highlight the intensifying battle for narrative control.

Key Takeaways
  • Establishing a universal agreement to protect freedom of expression is challenging due to varying interpretations and implementations of existing agreements.
  • Social media and the use of bots have changed the rules of determining credibility and have made it difficult to combat the spread of false information.
  • Hope lies in the growing appetite for social media regulation and holding "Big Tech" accountable.

Taryn Ward  Hi, I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones  and I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the freedom of expression or free speech, as it's sometimes known to better understand the role social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW  In our last few episodes, we've traced the history of the freedom of expression and free speech. This episode will look at whether there's a global framework for protecting those freedoms.

SJ  And our first full episode in my series on the freedom of expression, we made a fairly bold statement, which is that there is no coherent global history of freedom of expression to speak of. 

TW  We were quick to boundary that statement, though, and point out several different pathways we could trace to make it clear that we're not saying there is no global history, but rather that there are many global histories with very different traditions and approaches and priorities so that we can easily talk about one global history of the freedom of expression. Let's start with the question then. Is there a global framework for protecting the freedom of expression now? Yes, and no. But it might be helpful to think first about what goes into building a framework, whether we're working towards filling that framework, and whether it's even worth having a global framework to begin with?

SJ  Yeah, yeah. In many ways, the world is loosely more connected now than than it ever has been before, not just in terms of communication, travel, but also in agreements on how to engage with each other and agreements that define certain rights. In the last episode, we looked at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, which both uphold the rights to freedom of expression.

TW Non-western countries interpret and implement these agreements in accordance with their own historical, cultural and political contexts. In practice, that means that many countries have reservations or different interpretations in terms of what these rights embody, to what extent they deserve protecting, and what the obligation to protect looks like. As a result, how these agreements are interpreted and implemented vary so greatly that you can sometimes feel they're unrecognisable from one country to the next. To put it another way, these documents have done some really important work in terms of norm-setting. But in terms of establishing a universal agreement to protect these freedoms or even establishing a universal definition for what that freedom is, we have a really long way to go.

SJ  Yeah, and often, China and Russia are used as examples to contrast the, the western approach to freedom of expression, but Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea are also used, but those those countries, even within those countries, that there's not one approach, which is consistent because their priorities are different. And they're the culture is different. So the rules and enforcement follow suit. Yeah,

TW  absolutely. And that raises an even more fundamental question, which is whether it's even possible to have a global framework for the freedom of expression.

SJ  Oh, that is a difficult question, isn't it without real justification? And maybe we'll work this out as we chat. But, yes, obviously, it is capable to have a global framework, will it be easily achievable? Now it won't, because there are a lot of regimes globally who have zero interest in their population having freedom of expression, and we've seen, and then we're probably going to grab this a bit later number of a number of countries, even in the West, who have, you know, reduced freedom of expression over the last little while. So, you know, yes, we can, we can definitely do it. And we probably should, particularly in a global scenario where social media companies and the internet are so important to the way people express themselves and find information. But there's a there are obviously a lot of challenges that only Taryn, you're the you're really the constitutional expert, least in the US context for, for freedom of expression, what do you think.

TW  It's very rare that I think something is impossible. I think, you know, I think in terms of likelihood, it's It's low. I, depending on how you define a global framework. So I think, you know, there are things that we can do and things that we can agree on. I think even a push for having a single document that every country in the world agrees to in terms of exactly how these things are defined and how they're protected in the scope of, of those things is really difficult. And so I think it's important that we really think carefully about how we frame all these different approaches that, that we see across the world because it's really not the case that people living in some of the countries you mentioned a minute ago. or, or even some of the governments themselves don't value freedom or don't value the freedom of expression. Specifically, it's more a question of how this right, to the extent that it exists, is balanced against other freedoms and obligations. context matters, surprise, surprise. So we think in some ways, rather than thinking about a global framework for the freedom of expression, it might be helpful instead to think about global norms and trends and to consider the direction we're heading. And whether we're trending in the direction of a global framework, even if we never quite get there, or at least trending towards a global understanding of that freedom that we can all sort of hang our hats on. Whenever we start talking about norms and trends, I can feel some of our listeners groaning and moaning, and I get it, it sounds squishy. And in some ways, it's certainly less clear than having bright-line rules. But that doesn't mean we can't measure progress or lack of progress. 

SJ  Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, and, and it is important that you know, now, as I said in my little rant earlier, you know, we know that journalists are under attack from, from 2016 to the end of 2021, UNESCO recorded the killing of 450, fire journalists, all while imprisonment of journalists is reaching record heightened and similarly, since 2016, dozens of countries have adopted or amended laws that threaten the freedom of expression. And specifically, press resume online very often, all while the number of social media users doubled from from 2.3 billion in 2016, to 4.2 billion in 2021. And a lot of those people are getting news and information online, right? That's one of the reasons they're there. We know that there is concern from experts that that we're on the brink of largely rejecting those core values and commitments post World War Two, which I think you and I deeply valued. And, and, and the international cooperation, therefore, this group that's allowed the establishment of this common ground, which is, you know, maybe underlines your point earlier that it's a goal worth heading towards, but we might never reach it, because we're just not capable that anymore.

TW  Yeah, and in part of this is because the idea that good speech will win out over bad speech, truth over deception, kindness over hate, right over wrong, has suffered some increasingly heavy blows. Many different factors have fed into this, but the role that social media and the widespread use of bots on social media in, particular, is really undeniable. At this stage in the game. In our previous series, and the existing social media landscape, we spoke about some of these dangers, but it's worth taking a moment to connect those dots here. For decades, we've taken this concept for granted and believed, perhaps more in the United States where than anywhere else, that if everyone is allowed to speak, listeners will determine the truth and will do so with some accuracy. Not that it will be perfect or even efficient, and it will definitely be messy. But we'll get there in the end. And perhaps we'll even get to a more complete truth and a deeper understanding for having listened to and addressed the false and wrong information. We'll talk about what's changed in a minute. But Steve, before we turn to that, was this ever really the case? Or was this sort of a, you know, a widespread delusion? Was there a time when it was true, that if everyone was allowed a lot of freedom to say, mostly whatever, mostly, whenever, largely wherever, good speech tended to win out over a bad?

SJ  Oh, maybe? I mean, it's hard to think of really solid concrete examples, right? And I think the intention has always been good. But? but the reality is that I'm reminded of a conversation that we had in one of the earlier episodes where we talked about the fact that the public square actually had rules. That, you know, that debate valued in ancient Greece actually came with a construct and a set of rules. And I think that useful, free speech, which relies on that debate of have firmly held, you know, ethical, truthful ideas, sincere, sincere ideas, and trying to find the right way forward in a complex world is dependent on having those rules. And I think that's part of the problem now, is that those rules have been eroded and don't exist, essentially, on social media. You can just shout at one another. And, you know, we'll talk about some of the reasons why that's bad in a bit, I guess. And somebody has, has always had to be willing to back up the speech with action. You know, one of the problems that you might see with the UN it was carefully crafted to give everybody a voice from the weakest countries to the most powerful countries had a voice. But you put blocks in so that the most powerful countries could actually block the most important issues, you know, and there was no power or to enforce the Security Council particularly has been a bit of a nightmare because blocks were built into it. And everybody's blocked, you know, changes it globally. So you could you could say whatever you want it, but action and change was very difficult to achieve. And that's true. You know, I think it's, it's obvious to see those in those large international organisations, but even government level and national government level or even local level, the same sort of bureaucratic problems arise, you know, you can have a chat about stuff, but then actually turning that into action is often where the problem problems come. And I don't know, does that even answer the question? I'm not sure that it ever really works. I think there were lots of good intentions. 

TW  Okay, fair enough. I think it's hard to say, I think it probably worked better, at different times, and worse at different times, right. But social media, and the use of bots, in particular, have changed the rules in a way that we really haven't seen before, it's become more and more difficult to determine the credibility of a speaker. So this is not someone from your hometown, standing humbly in the town square, saying things that have proven to be untrue, will have direct in real consequences for that speaker. And it's not even an article in a newspaper where customers can cancel subscriptions or a television programme where viewers could stop watching. In many cases on social media, it's not clear where an opinion or viewpoint even started. And it's even less clear who is engaging with that content and driving distribution. And there's really no good way to, to make there be consequences for for those accounts. Let me reframe that that's not true. There are ways but the way most of the large social media platforms operate now, there are no consequences. And so we know that this is an opportunity that many governments are taking and that bot farms not only helped to post content widely and repeatedly, but they also work hard to promote content that suits them. So Steve, maybe we could talk through an example of how this all works. I have a really weird one that just popped into my mind. I have no idea why. Gummy worms. Have you ever had gummy worms?

SJ  I have. I've gotten gummy worms. Yeah. Okay,

TW  disgusting, sugary snack for my childhood. I'm not even sure I like them at the time. Anyway, let's see the parent company, which I randomly happen to know is German, give some money. Or let's keep it realistic and say it gives a lot of money to an opposition party in a country fond of using bots and with some expertise. This doesn't go over well. So the leadership of this country or someone working for that leadership group launches a social media campaign. This could go in a lot of different directions, but let's not be lazy here. Let's say the start a rumour that gummy worms contain a computer chip. And if you swallow gummy worm the chip implanted into your stomach and makes its way to your brain or I don't know obviously biology wasn't my thing. But the point is the government can then monitor you wherever this chip is. Let me be clear right now. This is a completely made up and hypothetical situation. I have nothing against gummy worms. They're just not my favourite snack. Stay with me. There are a lot of different ways this could play out. Let's let's try to keep it as simple as we can. 10,000 accounts push out 100 variations of an article about gummy worm computer chips, an additional 30,000 bot accounts COMMENT, LIKE SHARE, do whatever they can to boost it. My weirdo uncle in Wisconsin sees this come up in his newsfeed and is convinced partially because he seemed to other similar articles on his news feed over the past few days, each with several 100 engagements. You know, this is starting to all all make sense to him. He never liked gummy worms either, by the way, so he shares this to his network. And you know, because he's generally considered to be a level headed person by many people in his community. This information is shared further. And eventually, you know, even for people who scratch their heads in aren't really sure they buy this, many of them will think twice before eating or buying gummy worms. And the other seed that's been planted to this process that the US government is involved in this is going to be really difficult to dislodge Steve, that was a long one. But from a public health perspective, how dangerous is this really?

SJ  Let's be honest, it's not a million miles away from things which have actually happened in the real world. And to be clear, I quite like gummy worms. I particularly the really sour ones. Not as much a lot. I used to like jelly babies, but they're quite difficult to source on this side of the Atlantic. But Jelly Babies are awesome. You know? Yeah, this computer ship thing. And you're misunderstanding of biology is entirely brilliant for this example because in order to make this a convincing story, you don't have to, because most of the people that you're talking to don't understand the difficult 80 of hiding computer chips that can communicate with the outside in anything. So why couldn't they transplant transport themselves to the brain and suddenly grow a network? So not only can the government tell where you are what anytime, but you can also tell everything that you're thinking, because we just give that sort of technology away free. Now, this stops people getting vaccines, right, Andrew Wakefield will, let's not call him a doctor, who started the rumour about MMR causing the autism had various motives financial Whitesburg for doing that light actually made up data light struck by that lie. And I remember seeing the chief medical officer for England on TV and saying if I went round to every house in England and put a red dot, that all those little sticky red dots, you know, on the forehead of every child, exactly the same portion proportion, would get autism is if I vaccinated them with MMR. It has nothing to do with the MMR. It's got nothing to do with the red dot. And either That, to me, is a logical right informed person. That's that's a great argument makes complete sense. But to someone who's worried about their children, and I had family members who were who refused to have them at MMR because of that because they were worried about that. Yeah, absolute disaster. And we've seen it play out across the world, you know, run social media campaigns complaining about exampling against the quality of Indian-made vaccines for measles caused a massive measles outbreak in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean islands. Because people stopped taking the vaccine, they thought it was less good quality than one made in Europe or in North America. absolutely not true at this state-of-the-art facility, one of the best facilities in the world. It's incredibly dangerous. And there are lots of other examples. We could mention bleach and ivermectin if one wanted to, but let's not.

TW  Yeah, fair, fair enough. And it's it is one of those things that once it's out there, you know, even us having this conversation about gummy worms right now, we're trying to make it as absurd as possible, and trying to caveat all these things. Because I don't want anyone to walk away from this episode without even a shadow of a doubt that gummy worms are going to, you know, somehow implant computer chips. And, you know, against all these 1000s of bot networks, it's really hard to say that truth will triumph because it doesn't stand a chance. It's not, you know, this isn't a reasonable mind may differ situation. 

SJ  This is a conspiracy that is designed to spread false information, like tremendous amounts of resources. You know, we know that that Russia had a massive operation of lying disinformation and misinformation, which it only has to start the ball rolling. Right? Like you said, this example with your uncle was a great one. Like, if it looks credible, there are a number of things on it. And the same for the Chinese, like influencing Twitter posts by liking them and spreading them, you know, like, it's not even difficult to work. And, you know, back, back to the question you asked earlier about speech, you know, speech, was there ever a time when the exchange of ideas was really helpful? You know? I think there was an alternative then of like, news organisations would trust it, you know, like the Nine O'Clock News in the UK, the 10 O'Clock News on ITV, Trevor McDonald in, in the US, you know, the nightly news, Walter Cronkite and his peers. They were serious men and women who told like credible stories that everybody believed because they were good journalism. And and that's been eroded, I think. And so we don't we don't people don't trust those resources, those sources, because you've got things like Fox News and CNN who disguise opinion as fact and whatever. Nobody knows what to believe. So why shouldn't you believe something which 10,000 100,000 million people have shared online is terribly dangerous?

TW  Yes, in this is a new obviously an extreme example, it's a childhood snack loved by many. And in a very extreme claim. There are lots of other ways to do this, where it's a really subtle, more of a nudge; those can be, in some cases, the most dangerous, too, because they're a lot harder to spot in. This is where we have some really interesting stats on people who think they're really good at spotting these false narratives and how they're often the people who are most easily taken in. It's the people who go out, and they know that they're maybe a little bit vulnerable to that information, who are extra careful. And it's really people my age, who are well educated and keep up on things, who are, are actually the most vulnerable because we are full of ourselves and we think that we know best. So note to myself, I guess. So, article 19 is an organisation focused on the freedom of expression, and they released their global expression report from 2022 with the headline, the intensifying battle for narrative Control. This is not an uplifting or a light read. But we recommend taking a look for yourself anyway because it is really important. This report notes a steady downward shift since 2011 globally and notes the following stats: it was hard to read. And it's hard to say 80% of the global population lives with less freedom of expression now than they had a decade ago. 80% globally, only 7% of people around the world have seen an improvement in the same since 2011. The entire top 10 countries in terms of freedom of expression are now European countries. And finally, the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021. Is back to where it was in 1989.

SJ  I mean, that is a depressing list. Listening to you recite it, I'm getting more and more depressed. And I knew some of that already. Yeah, it's awful, isn't it? I mean, and for those people who were younger than me, and possibly even younger, the new 1989 Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain. And so half of it was living under the control of communist regimes who were A) non-democratic and B) didn't have a firm belief in the freedom of expression. Unless you were expressing what they wanted you to, which is obviously a culturally different way of doing it. Yeah, that, that is really, really dreadful. And it's not like, you know, a decade ago or into 2011, there was a massive sort of swathe of people across the globe who enjoyed extremely high levels of freedom of expression. And the fact that is, it's gone backwards, is actually horrifying. It's hard to imagine how that was even possible. But I guess if you look at things like, you know, restrictions that the UK Government has put on freedom of assembly and, and protest in the last couple of years, you can see how that's changed.

TW  Yes, and I think, you know, one thing that is worth pointing out is we've included stats on freedom of expression and democracy. And that's not an accident. These two things are really tied together. And we've seen a lot of shifts in, in conversations around freedom of expression in free speech over the last 2030 years, and one is the politicisation of of it, or rather a shift in who is politicising it. But these two things are tied together. And the narrative has really shifted to make free expression and free speech all about individual freedoms. It's about my right to go and scream in your face whenever I want to, it's my right to go and scream whenever I want. But actually, historically, it was much more about democracy than individual freedoms there. It's always been about both to an extent, but it has never been decoupled in the way that we're seeing now, these things have always always been tied together. And part of the reason I think we're seeing this decline is because, because of that separation.

SJ  I think that's right. And I mean, as you were talking, I was sort of like reminded of something we were talking about with the first, first amendment in the US, which is, you know, easy to talk about, because it's, everybody at least knows what it is. Most people know what it is. And it's separation us like you had the personal right to practice whichever religion you want it and to say whatever you wanted, the government couldn't infringe on those those rights. But, but you're right that the framers understood that the freedom of the press, the sharing of information, the lack of preventing political control of the things that the press could say, was fundamental to the operation of democracy, that there is an objective truth. There are also differences of opinion on how to deal with situations, and you have to be able to have that open conversation, ideally in the press. And you know, I back to my the point I was making just a little while ago, and I love I love the newsroom. I actually like Sorkin's work, I think he's a brilliant writer, some of his rants are great. But this is one of the things which the star of that show says in the opening scenes, like America's democracy has degraded because news is no longer valued. It's polarised there isn't an objective truth. And that's it's far from the worst example, you know, the, across the globe. autocrats are having their free field day right with, with convincing people the reason that objective truth.

TW  I think your point about the First Amendment is a good one because there are a lot of different clauses in there. And it's not all about individual freedoms. It's it's a lot of a lot of different different things, you know, including the estoppel Measurement class. So it is, it is not just about what individual people can do. It's specifically not set up that way. It's about what Congress can't do. One other notable quote from that report is is the following. Around the globe, autocrats are pushing the boundaries of how far they can restrict the freedom of expression. The international community continues to turn a blind eye, prioritising profit over people; governments rightly condemn Russia and, at the same time, discuss trade with Saudi Arabia. This hypocrisy feeds the cycle of democratic decline in comes at a great long-term cost. 

SJ  Yes, absolutely.

TW  I mean, what else can you say?

SJ  I mean, really, how do we draw these distinctions? You know, it's, you're slightly less bad because you have something that we really, really want and are more willing to work with us on getting it to us at the price we like.

TW  I think let's wrap up on a slightly more positive note. So the report does point out that hope is not completely lost. And I think it's really telling that the glimmer of hope is in the realm of social media. So they talk about how the mood has really shifted in terms of appetites for regulation and that many governments have started to take the first steps towards holding big social accountable. And I think that is reason to help because although we have a long way to go from here to getting the situation under control, it is a step in the right direction. Next time, we'll explore the Western framework for the freedom of expression and consider how it might be well suited or not well suited to address new and emerging challenges. In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website.

SJ  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones. 

TW  And I'm Taryn Ward. 

SJ  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines. 

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