We need the kind of social institutions that will direct the new flood of speech productively.
The Internet is facing a crackdown.
Because the Internet is facilitating supposedly exaggerated rumors of unrest in Turkey, the government reportedly weighed a ban on social media services—a claim the Turkish Minister of Transport and Communication Binali Yıldırım later refuted. In late August, India started down the same path, for the same reasons.
And it’s not just governments. Facebook itself, which recently revealed that about 8 percent of the people on Facebook are not real, is cracking down on fake likes—though it swears the difference will be imperceptible. (Of course, that raises the question, why do it if it doesn’t make a difference?)
LiveJournal, one of the most venerable social networking sites online, has pursued a longstanding pattern of crushing content that it doesn’t particularly care for (though why they dislike fanfic is a mystery).
There is a lot of objectionable stuff on the Internet, of course—and an awful lot of pure whim wham.
A 20-something (which seems too old for this kind of juvenile trolling to me) in Philadelphia thinks that Facebook pages suggesting that someone “Kill Mitt Romney” are funny.
Popular mystery novelist R.J. Ellory admitted this week that he maintained fake Amazon accounts to post rave reviews of his own books on Amazon and to pan his competitors.
Even Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service is getting in on the game. Annoyed by the traction the opposition has gotten online, the successor to the KGB has announced its own sweeping project to build a bot army to flood social media sites with propaganda.
And a lot of the Internet is simply inconvenient for those in power (or those that hope to be), as the Republican party found when it sponsored #areyoubetteroff. Three-quarters of those who used the hashtag said “yes.”
To focus only on the misuse of the system, however, is to ignore how deeply embedded in our lives the Internet have already become.
The same day we reported Turkey’s proposed ban on social media, a couple in Turkey said their wedding vows over Twitter. A local mayor officiated the service on his iPad. That is the first time, that the Daily Dot is aware of, that someone has actually tied the knot by tweet.
Similarly, a man in the U.K. started a crowdfunding site, Don’t Tweet the Bride, to put on a surprise wedding for his fiancée. (Friendly note: If you want to keep something secret, DON’T MAKE A WEBSITE ABOUT IT.)
Meanwhile, an intimate family drama, including several possible domestic crimes, is playing itself out across the full range of social media. A missing teen has taken to YouTube to accuse his father of sexual abuse; his father has started a blog to refute those charges, encourage his son to come home, and accuse the boy’s mother of kidnapping him and manufacturing his accusations; and the mother has taken to Twitter to tweet about child advocacy groups.
The nature of the Internet is dual. It combines the best and the worst, the most important and private, and the most flagrant and fraudulent aspects of human life. At the same moment that some parts of the Internet are cracking down, others are loosening up.
South Korea has just lifted a three-year ban that prevented users from posting most types of content, including everything from elaborate items such as videos to simple things such as comments.
The challenge presented by the Internet is perhaps best illustrated by what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.
NATO’s action against the Taliban has recently acquired a new theater of war: Twitter. The microblogging service has become the social networking tool of choice for Islamic extremists. Their preference arises from two unique attributes of Twitter: unlike bulletin boards, Facebook, or YouTube, Twitter is not actively monitored, and because of its open nature and the ease with which content is copied and shared, messages spread further (and faster) before they are removed.
However, NATO is not responding by trying to block Twitter. In the experts’ view, extremists are really only talking to the people they’ve already converted or would soon convert through another means. At least if they’re doing it over Twitter; it’s somewhere where everyone (including NATO intelligence services) can see it.
The reason the Internet is both so grand and so dangerous is because it represents the greatest amplification of the freedom of speech we have ever seen. When speech was amplified by the printing press, the result was the the Ninety-Five Theses, Common Sense, and The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Those were not mere words; they had practical effects: the Reformation and, most immediately, the American and French Revolutions.
There will be similar repercussions to the Internet. But trying to stop the flow of speech is a fool’s errand. It’s like trying to stop a river from flowing. You can do it—for a while. Without a huge effort and expense to maintain it, any dam will eventually burst from the weight of the water behind it.
The only option is to accept that the river will flow and build it into the system—to channel the river or let it flow through the dam in regular, productive ways.
We need the kind of social institutions that will direct the new flood of speech productively—if ever imperfectly. And those institutions are being developed all around us. Whether it’s the self-policing we’re seeing at Facebook or the crowdsourcing of Don’t Tweet the Bride, the world of the Internet is rife with innovation and experimentation. Many attempts to channel speech will fail, but many will succeed.
Whatever happens, blanket laws will always have a half-life. It is the freedom to run countless concurrent experiments that will ultimately generate the social institutions we need.
In essence, the solution to the problem of freedom of speech is freedom of speech itself—and some patience.
Photo by Guillaume Capron/Flickr
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