Free Expression Introduction Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Jan 24

Free Expression Introduction Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

This episode introduces and explores the core issues around social media and the freedom of expression.

It discusses why we should care about freedom of expression and its connection to social media and examines the impact of social media on freedom of expression, including the role of governments and social media platforms, and addresses the challenge of balancing online harms and freedom of expression.

Key takeaways:

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  • Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that is closely tied to social media.
  • Social media has had a significant impact on freedom of expression, creating new challenges and opportunities.
  • Both governments and social media platforms play a role in shaping freedom of expression. 
  • There is hope for the future of freedom of speech, but it requires active participation and adaptation.

Taryn Ward  Hi, I'm Taryn Ward, and this is Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the freedom of expression or free speech, to better understand the role social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  We tend to start our episodes with a question. And as this is the first in our series. Let's start with the following: Why should we care about the freedom of expression? And what does it have to do with social media anyway? 

TW.  There are a lot of different ways to answer why we should care about the freedom of expression or free speech and virtually all of them are politically charged: individual liberty and self-fulfilment, the search for truth functioning democracy, a necessary check on government power, or some combination of these goals and values often provides a starting point. And Western democracies have a long history of trying to balance not only the different values that underpin the freedom of expression but also of trying to balance that against other related rights, like the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and rights that are sometimes competing. Rights concerning equality and privacy, for example. 

TW.  Thankfully, the values protected by the freedom of expression or free speech are not inherently contradictory and are not even independent of each other. But they are values that are balanced differently in different cultures and societies, even in the West, but certainly outside of Western traditions. Globalisation and the internet, complicated things, but it was social media and its widespread and near-constant use through smartphones that make this an issue in a new way. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who predicted the World Wide Web decades before it was invented, argued that the medium is the message. And we can all understand intuitively, to some extent, that this is true. Having a conversation in person is not the same as over the phone. And the choice of whether to have that conversation in person versus over the phone is often sometimes part of the message, just like it's not the same as in an email, or by text message or on a social media thread. 

TW.  Some experts argue that the human brain has actually changed to adapt to the age of the internet, which, although initially was presented as the beginning of unlimited freedom and free speech without government interference, actually has a beginning that doesn't fit so neatly within that narrative. In any case, the internet did not provide the unlimited freedom of speech or free expression some hope for, and in fact, in many ways, it simply created new gatekeepers with greater influence over the public than anything we've ever seen. 

TW.  Governments are still playing a role both in terms of the broader Internet ecosystem and social media platforms specifically. But while they set some clear rules in terms of which types and, in some cases, which specific pieces of content need to be removed, they've essentially outsourced the judgement of how those rules are applied to most types and pieces of content. So now we have social media platforms and private actors, determining not only which content is featured or favoured but which content is limited or removed, which creates a pseudo-legal system devoid of democratic processes or accountability. Nothing better encapsulate this and the so called Facebook Supreme Court, which of course, not supreme, not a court, it's largely an advisory panel. 

TW.  It's true and fair to say that governments have largely done this to themselves. But the situation as it currently stands means that nation-states are largely watching on the sidelines as this fundamental right that we all value, the freedom of expression or free speech, is eroded along with our legal systems. Later in this series, we'll take a closer look at some recent reports that show a steady decline in these freedoms across the world. Some experts have said that we're currently living in an era of the deconstitutionalisation of freedom of speech. This is a serious problem. But there is reason to hope that this is one difficult chapter and that things can turn around. Because this right is so deeply rooted in our history and so many other rights, understandably, and justifiably so, it's not designed for a quick pivot to account for the internet, social media and smartphones. Sometimes these things really do just take time. 

TW.  This all means that we can either use what we have and try to adapt it to the new challenges and opportunities we face or use it as an opportunity to reevaluate more deeply our existing structures and consider how to change them for what we face next. Either approach means that if we want to preserve this right and we care about how it intersects with other rights, we need to understand and be actively part of the discussion that's happening around us. Social media is a great place to start because it's not just one of the primary ways individuals communicate with each other, or how brands communicate with consumers and consumers with brands or how governments communicate with citizens and citizens of governments, but also because it's become a primary means to share and access information more broadly, and a place where people spend a lot of their time. 

TW.  As it stands today, we have private actors who created companies that, by definition, exist to make a profit, determining what expression is allowed and in what form and how much reach it has, including political speech. This goes to the heart of what freedom of expression or free speech is about. And it's important that when we think about these freedoms, we also think about the social media platforms. And that when we think about these social media platforms, we think about these freedoms. The good news is we're not starting from scratch. Most of the new issues we face as a result of the internet, social media and now AI have significant overlaps with issues that we've already largely considered. And at least to some extent, we actually have a unique opportunity to look at how these issues were handled in the past, think about what worked well and what could have been better, and use this to develop and deepen our thinking about how to address these issues in their new forms. 

TW.  One final, more specific note, for our own purposes, we started working on Bright to address three major online harms, abuse and harassment myths and disinformation and the broader negative mental health impacts of existing social media networks. All three of these touch on the freedom of expression or free speech, or perhaps were accurately addressing these harms can sometimes be made more complex regulators because they need to balance these serious harms on the one hand against this fundamental right on the other, or more accurately, still, against what many people believe that right means. 

TW.  Next episode, we'll define a few key terms before we look to the history of the freedom of expression in free speech in detail. In the meantime, we'll push the transcript of this episode with references on our website. 

TW.  Until next time, I'm Taryn Ward. Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

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