Free speech is fundamental for artists, advocates and activists, the basis of all we do. Today, however, this value is being pushed to the limit by the internet, the new front line of hate, and very little is being done about it.
The problem is so pervasive that senior executives at Facebook spend hours upon hours debating the nuances of free speech and community standards in a room that is ironically named “Oh, Semantics.” This is an improvement over last year, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg actually argued that a post denying the Holocaust was an example of an offensive yet acceptable argument made in good faith on his social-media platform. “I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with journalist Kara Swisher. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Last month, with no small amount of irony, two artists joined an advertising company in creating a “deepfake” video depicting Zuckerberg bragging about controlling data and thus controlling the world. The fabricated video was a lesson in what’s possible today, how easily we can be misled, and how anyone — even the man who hosts more fake news than anyone — can be subjected to revision, manipulation and outright distortion.
The same vehicles we use to share our humanity and truth can also propagate lies and hatred, with direct connections to some of the most vicious recent acts of terrorism. Think of the April synagogue shooting in Poway, near San Diego, or of the mosque attacks in New Zealand the month before. These events were linked by the shared ideologies of the terrorists responsible, who gained access to hatred and built a world around it in online forums.
Artists, advocates and others who cherish free expression can no longer treat it as an unalloyed good. We must recognize the present complexities and begin to act accordingly.
George Washington famously said that “the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.” One wonders if Washington ever imagined that the tables could turn so completely so that what is arguably the most expansive platform for free speech that we have ever known — the internet — could also be a direct cause of the violence and destruction he believed free speech protected against. Free speech remains protected in the United States, but it is no longer protective.
John T. Earnest, the Poway shooter, spent 18 months prior to the attack on the website 8chan, where he had access to the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, developed his own ideology of hate and ultimately became responsible for the murder of a woman he hadn’t met until the day he walked into her synagogue and unloaded his gun into a crowd of innocent people. The role of unfettered online communication in the crime raises urgent questions about the line that separates constructive expression and activism from hate and terror.
The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But when media serve as an incubator of terror, we cannot treat that freedom with the same philosophy that has protected it until this day. It is our fundamental responsibility to jump into this dark storm. If we fail to engage with it now, the problem will grow worse.
Artists, activists and other long-standing champions of free speech can play a unique role in aiding the broader community toward identifying a new path and new solutions. To start, we must shake off our old understanding to come up with a new vision of free speech that recognizes risks that are out of our control. Whether the answer is simply monitoring the channels of free speech, like the internet and news media, or has yet to be defined, the task has never been more pressing.
We cannot leave this up to the politicians or officials who traditionally protect (or fight) free speech. Human rights activists, educators and artists have fought for the very freedom we must now attempt to harness. My hope is that with the same strength, creativity and perseverance that has defined our communities for centuries, we can address this crucial undertaking without besmirching our venerable privilege.
This problem is chaotic and mind-boggling, but we have to summon the creativity and willingness to push boundaries. We must reclaim free expression from the imposters and bring back the passion for moderate speech and debate. We cannot afford to surrender constructive dialogue to the tools of hatred and death.