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Amid the fever of “fake news” and multiple governments’ desire to limit encryption in the light of even more terrorist atrocities, is the core principle of social media and the World Wide Web – that of freedom of expression – coming to an end?

Article written by Rob Somerville

A friend I have known for many years made a very astute and profound observation recently – “One of the greatest forms of inhumanity is shutting down the opinion of others,” he said. What was so surprising about this comment was not so much the veracity and truth surrounding the comment, but rather that it was my friend that said it. A retired policeman, to the casual observer, he would not naturally fall into the category of the liberal warrior fighting for the right of freedom of speech. This was what made his comment much more poignant, having recently attempted to broach a taboo subject with a group of people, despite his experience of life – he was closed down and told to shut up and get back in his box. Irrespective of using a reasoned argument, and refusing to stoop to using below the belt tactics of the ad hominem attack or sophistry, he was genuinely shocked at the level of resistance he encountered.

And so it is with new media, the web, and the expansion of technology. We are once again facing that moment in history where the established order is terrified by the forces released now that the Pandora’s box of freedom of expression has been democratised. Anyone with an internet connection can now become an overnight sensation – more often than not by appealing to the basest of emotions or refuting the most controversial of issues. The last time this happened on such a scale was when the printing press was invented. The material that was not officially sanctioned was confiscated, burnt, and publishers were fined and imprisoned. Time and again, the same modus operandi has been applied – those that culturally rock the boat are ostracised, demonised, tagged and hopefully dismissed and ignored. The only time that this technique fails with spectacular results is when they (whoever “they” may be) misread the underlying mood of the majority of people, refuse to accept the spiral of silence and honestly believe that they are still in control of the narrative. This has clearly been demonstrated by the shock waves that have rocked the established order with the results of the recent US election, British EU referendum and the recent UK election which resulted in a hung parliament. Anyone who denies the role played by the internet and social media in these outcomes is indeed living in a cloud cuckoo land. This is why there exist a panicked move to redress the balance back towards censorship, control and re-establishing “trust”.

Fake news is one of these buzz-words that I find truly intellectually offensive. It is only with the onward march of time that the true agenda and bias of traditional media is ever exposed, and like political parties, the traditional press gathers around the totem pole of tribalism and brand. The overriding principle is that of setting your stall to appeal to a particular audience, and certain viewpoints and moral positions are taken as de rigour. Or to put it another way, true, rational quality journalistic objectivism is in a short supply. One man’s fact is another man’s distorted statistic, and there is little chance of finding a sieve that takes such subjective reality and extracts the valuable objective juices. We are all prisoners of our deceptions. To categorise those who attempt to raise their head above the parapet of the established consensus and voice their opinion – no matter how controversial – as fake, is indeed a crude ad hominem attack. What is important is the chemistry of dialogue, interaction and the forming of understanding, for so often we do not have sufficient empathy to understand the shape and fit of the shoes of our fellow man or woman. Unless we have a common canvas onto which we can all freely share and paint our experiences, the boil of bitterness and isolation can but fester and grow out of sight. Which is why the whole concept of silencing the network of people who feel confident enough to blog, tweet, post from the comfort of their keyboard is such an anathema – no matter how uncomfortable they may make us feel. For it is only when such negative views are aired, that any push back or counter action may be taken. By silencing those we disagree with, not only are we discarding any opportunity to learn something and engage, but we are giving consent to others to silence us.

What we have is in effect an existential battle between control and expression. The technological genie is out of the bottle, and the more attempts that are made to force him back in and bury the bottle of human advancement, equality and expression in the concrete grave of mediocrity, silence and dumb obedience, the louder the outcry will be. Social media, like all other platforms that allow interactions between human beings, is a volatile place. Time-wasters, trolls, opportunists, the bigoted, uneducated and those with hidden agendas will always be attracted to any platform that gives them credibility or power. In that regard, technology is damned in the same way as religion, politics, capitalism or indeed books. As individuals, it is crucial that we use judgment and discernment as it is so easy to be taken in by our natural biases, and to embrace the siren witch of subjectivity. Ironically, our enemies can prove to be better friends than we possibly believe, exposing weaknesses that we would rather not admit to. Like the troll or the angry man, you need to peel back the visceral response from both perspectives (yours and theirs) to extract any nugget of truth or value, if indeed it exists. It is interesting that from a cultural perspective that both the joker and the clown have value – even in certain card games, the joker has a low and high value.

We are at a major crossroads of history. There is a huge disconnect and disparity in our world, between truth and lies, rich and poor, predator and prey. The only gap between the two is the silence of those that choose not to speak. We must encourage them to share their story and move the narrative from bias to consensus. While there are those that will always subscribe to the principle that the majority are not always right, there are certain core values that we share as a race. Until we can embrace these common values as a starting point, we are lost. And the most important of these is the freedom of expression, to be listened to objectively. Without that, not only have we lost our democracy but our humanity too.

August 30, 2017

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