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Within the past decade, the internet has become a source of communication and collaboration wherein people become capable of expressing views and opinions to a worldwide audience. It is a tool for free speech that has allowed the dissemination of ideas across cultures and continents, resulting in a much more informed global society.
One of the reasons why it has become a famous avenue of communication and collaboration has been the general consensus by viewers and listeners alike that the mass media is invariably biased, thus necessitating a better means of learning about global and local events.
However, various governments have attempted to restrict such freedom by implementing measures of control to limit the potential such a method of communication could cause in terms of inciting riots against the government due to unpopular policies or actions. Despite online posts being an extension of the freedom speech which is an inalienable human right, it must be questioned whether the restrictions over online freedom of speech are necessary given the potentially volatile nature of its outcomes?
What is the Freedom of Speech?
The concept of the freedom of speech is attributed to being a fundamental human right wherein people are given the ability to exchange ideas, information or concepts without fear of censorship or interference (Deibert, 1-25). In fact, it is a First Amendment right within the U.S., which prevents the government from establishing laws that infringe upon an individual’s inherent right to free speech and peaceful petition (Anderson, 120).
It must be noted though that despite the Freedom of Speech being a first Amendment right, subsequent amendments to the constitution as well as various historical acts such as the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Espionage Act of 1917 have, as a result, limited the application of the Freedom of Speech to certain boundaries (Anderson, 120). The reason behind this is rather simple, as a fundamental human right available to a human being from birth the Freedom of Speech can, and most often is, abused in order to pursue a personal or group goal.
Why do governments attempt to limit online free speech?
What must be understood is that online free speech is a powerful tool for change; it can instigate profound social and political changes within a nation or even society as a whole which at times is detrimental towards prospective goals set by governments. For example, the revolution that occurred in Egypt which toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, as well as the uprising that brought down Mohammed Morsi, were caused by the power of online speech (i.e., via online social media) inciting the masses towards revolution.
In fact, the current changes happening in the Middle East today are a direct result of the ideas carried by the power of online speech from country to country resulting in revolutions which have toppled numerous incumbent government regimes (West and West, 38).
The power of online free speech has also been known to exact social change wherein the “Green Movement” has incited changes in behaviors attributed towards greater awareness regarding environmental problems, environmental stewardship and the need to advocate methods of resource conservation (Deibert, 1-25).
This was accomplished via there numerous online articles and viral media campaigns. From this, it can be seen that the power of online free speech is truly profound, however, based on the example of Egypt and the Middle East, unmitigated online free speech can be a cause for concern for various governments since such methods of communication can and will result in actions which may disrupt various plans that the government has set into motion.
What must be understood is that governments are stewards of their people in that their primary purpose is to ensure the continued existence of the state and the stability of society. It is due to this role that governments play that in order to ensure social stability, various laws and acts are usually implemented which inhibit individual freedoms in order to ensure continued peace and stability.
This explains why individual acts created to limit the Freedom of Speech have been imposed in various cases in U.S. history as well as in the cases of other countries due to the need to limit the possible destabilizing effects that the Freedom of Speech can bring on a case to case basis. Based on the examples given, it can be said that while online free speech can help in creating a progressive society, unmitigated online free speech, on the other hand, acts as a destabilizing force that can incite nationwide riots.
This is one of the primary reasons why governments have attempted to regulate freedom of speech online given the potential it has for inciting chaos as a result of displeasure over the policies enacted by governments (Bradner, 28). The following section will explore the various attempts governments have utilized to impose restrictions on the freedom of speech and how the citizenry of various countries do not seem to realize that one of their basic human rights is being violated as a direct result of silent acquiescence.
Imposed Restrictions on Online Freedom of Speech
One of the issues with the imposed restrictions over freedom of speech within the context of the internet has been the acquiescence of the general population within certain countries towards the limitation of online activities due to a distinct lack of proper informed consent.
Informed consent can be defined as an individual understanding the full implications and possible future consequences of an event, activity, or trial that they are about to enter into. It is usually the case that informed consent is applied as an inherent right for participants when it comes to activities or actions that may have extenuating implications after an act has been performed (Bradner, 28).
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This applies to situations wherein an individual’s opinions, thoughts or arguments could possibly be used against them in the future or even extends to activities wherein their physical or mental state may experience a certain degree of aversion to the acts that are performed on them.
For example, informed consent is usually required by hospitals before surgery or administering certain types of medication due to the possible complications that may arise. Informed consent is also utilized in cases involving psychological treatment or experimentation wherein patients are informed of the possible implications/ramifications of the procedures that they will undergo.
Through informed consent, individuals, institutions and organization in effect absolve themselves of any potential legal problems by showing that the patient/volunteer in question was fully informed of what would happen to them, the apparent risks and yet consented for the acts to be performed nonetheless (Bradner, 28). In the case of restrictions of online freedom of speech, it should be noted that there is little in the way of sufficient informed consent when restrictions are implemented.
For example, in the case of “the Great Internet Wall of China” (an epithet used to describe the barriers to internet activity that occur within the country), there was no informed consent involving the limitation of the right to freedom of speech online, rather, limitations were unilaterally implemented by the Chinese government due to “subversive elements towards societal harmony” that they correlate with unhindered online activity.
As a result, internet postings within the country’s localized intranet (i.e. referring to a networked connection that is limited to a particular area or region) are heavily regulated with information that presents the state or the government in a bad light being subject to deletion with the internet poster also being brought up on criminal charges should they be found.
Similar restrictions can be seen in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the U.A.E (United Arab Emirates) and even in “westernized” societies such as Australia and Japan wherein there are imposed restrictions on the types of sites that can be accessed, a majority of which are usually deemed “socially subversive” (often related to views opposing that of the government or illegal pornography) resulting in their inaccessibility and possible prosecution of the website owners if they are located within the country.
One of the most prominent examples of imposed restrictions over online freedom of speech can be seen in the case of Wipas Raksakulthai, a 37-year-old Thai national who was arrested in the eastern Rayong province of Thailand due to Facebook post he made which insulted the
Thai monarchy (West and West, 38). Further examination of this case showed that the country actually has a criminal code that specifically states that it is illegal to insult the monarchy of the country with possible jail time for such an act sometimes reaching 15 years or more. Taking this into consideration, it can be seen that restrictions on freedom of speech is not limited to actions within the physical world but extends to the virtual world as well.
A similar case was noted in China’s recently implemented “anti gossip” law which specifically targets viral posting online which are meant to illicit public anger at the government or portray a specific government service in a bad light (West and West, 38). What these examples show is that the idea of the internet as an unassailable platform for the sharing of ideas and expression of thoughts is far from a reality given the numerous restrictions that are arbitrarily being imposed on it on a daily basis.
Yet, when examining the limitations that have been put in place, literary sources show that there is little in the way of sufficient informed consent on the part of the general public regarding the denial of an essential fundamental human freedom. What exists in its place is an arbitrary imposition of government will to prevent people from making their displeasure at the government’s activities known which could result in mass action resulting in the destabilization of the state (West and West, 38).
While it may be true that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the continued survival of the state, the fact remains that such an activity should not be done through a violation of fundamental human rights, yet, such violations are continuously being enacted on a daily basis on the online activities of their citizens whereby the views they express online are being limited to what the government deems as “acceptable”.
However, one must question why limitations are being implemented on the freedom of speech online when the news media would generally express such views in the first place given their position as the “4th Estate” whose responsibility is to act as a fundamental function in the checks and balances system between the government and the general public.
The following section will delve into answering such a question and will showcase why online freedom of speech is increasingly being restricted given its potential as a means of subverting the will of the government.
Freedom of Speech Online as a form of Unbiased News
The problem with the mass media at the present is that the news that is presented is usually edited, scripted and developed based on the needs of those in power. The views that are presented are often presented in such a way that they create a greater sense of appeal towards the general public which makes it less likely that incidents of outright anger at the government would occur.
Through the perspective of Heaton (2011), it can be seen that the propaganda model helps to create an explanation behind the power of mass media within the current capitalist economy of the United States (Heaton, 38-41).
The propaganda model presents the notion that the content produced by mass media outlets is invariably aligned with the inherent interests of the political and economic elites in that the produced content supports the current sociological and ideological biases that this specific sector of the population espouses.
Through such support, this, in turn, impacts the perception of viewers who rely on the media as a means of information regarding daily events around them (Heaton, 38-41). Based on the study of Heaton (2011), it was seen that the correlation between the propaganda model and the power of the media can be summarized on the impact of irrational exuberance as a means of influencing the behavior of a media outlet’s audience.
Irrational exuberance can be defined as the means of by which an individual molds their behavior on the actions of other people. It is defined as being “irrational” since some individuals tend to take things at face value resulting in their opinion being swayed by outside media without necessarily considering the other side of the issue.
One example of this can be seen in the recent case involving Trayvon Martin, an African American teen that was shot by George Zimmerman in an act of supposed self-defense. The coverage of the media involving this particular case continuously focused on the issue of race as being the prime factor behind the shooting with the media portraying Zimmerman as being racist towards African Americans (Roy, 98).
What was “neglected” to be mentioned was that Zimmerman had, in fact, helped an African American family in the past and was not known to be overly racist. By placing the case of Trayvon Martin and the lack of sufficient coverage of both aspects of his life through the lens of the propaganda model, it can be seen that the issue was in part used as a means of furthering the cause of gun control advocacy.
President Obama himself used the issue as a means of furthering stricter gun controls measures which at this particular point time was a “hot button” issue so to speak (Roy, 98). This shows how the mass media as it is known today has its own inherent biases in portrayal and presentation which are impacted by the powers that be (i.e. government and corporations) wherein issues are edited and presented based on what they want people to think and how irrational exuberance can set in to impact the decisions of viewers (Roy, 98).
In the case of media ethos, it can be seen that they type of ethos it espouses is a type of “artifice”, meaning that is created, manufactured, made, constructed, etc. It can be considered a type of surface image which may, in fact, have an entirely fictitious relationship to what is actually true. This aspect is exemplified by the four main aspects of the propaganda model namely: funding, ownership, sourcing and flak. In the case of media ethos, what must be understood is that the way which an idea or concept is “packaged” drastically changes the perception of the audience towards accepting the idea itself or the validity of its statements.
The assertions made by Heaton (2011) regarding the impact of the 4 factors of the propaganda model, when boiled down to its very essence, says the following: “the media is controlled by outside forces who can influence what you read and in turn how you think”. It is in the way that such a concept is packaged and presented to the public that changes the perception of the people to the idea that what they receive is an edited version of the news.
It is not outright explained that the news is based on the interests of currently established powers (i.e., corporations and the government), rather, the mass media presents itself as unbiased despite what the propaganda model shows is a situation where bias is actual aspect of its operations.
Based on what has been presented in this section, it can be seen that not everything that is presented by the news media is accurate. When access to information is controlled by the very source of that information, it is evident that the source would not willingly release data that would place it in a bad light.
While the media has a responsibility to its readership/viewership to present the facts as they are and not as the government wants them to be portrayed as, the fact remains that the current system is not oriented towards such a practice since most media conglomerates are profit-oriented resulting in the need to develop a positive cooperative relationship with government entities in order to continue to have access to information and to even function in the first place.
On the other end of the spectrum, various news blogs, message boards and social media sites have acted as the means by which people are able to present their viewpoints regarding particular situations in a way that is not edited and scripted by government news policies resulting in a presentation of the facts as they are. One clear example of this can be seen in the Pike (2011) study which examined the disparity in the views regarding the current state of the U.S. economy between ordinary citizens and the news media.
While media outlets and various experts that were brought on various shows stated that the economy was thriving with the job crisis in the U.S. effectively being “resolved” to a certain degree, a separate examination was conducted involving Yahoo, Google Plus and other internet websites wherein users were polled regarding their perception of the current state of the U.S. economy (Pike, 28).
Thousands of responses were sent in which showed that nearly all of the respondents did not feel the economy improving in the slightest with little in the way of sufficient job opportunities being made available (Pike, 28). When taking this into consideration, it can be seen that the presentation of the current economic situation is oftentimes misrepresented due to the potential societal fall out that would result from continuous coverage of a deteriorating economy.
One way of understanding why this occurs is through the study of Geller (2012) which explains that the freedoms accorded to “netizens” (i.e., people posting online) is often free of the biases inherent in news media today.
As a result, they are able to present the news from a micro-perspective (i.e., from a personal point of view) as compared to the macro-perspective often utilized by the news media (Geller, 12). While it may be true that on a macro-scale, it can be seen that there are economic improvements, what is not stated is how such improvements actually impact ordinary citizens. It is often the case that the numbers that are presented do not tell the entirety of the story.
For example, Geller (2012) explains that while the information released regarding increases in the amount of hiring for 2013 shows an improved hiring situation, in truth, the jobs that were announced were primarily for part-time workers in low-level service positions and are not an accurate representation of improved job growth. However, when examining the Pike (2011) study, it was seen that the micro-scale perspective presented by the internet posters showed the current job market as it is, namely dismal and lacking in sufficient openings.
This is one of the primary disparities in information presentation that exists at the present wherein through online speech the “truth of the matter” can be revealed. This is one of the reasons why freedom of speech online is currently being assailed by various governments since it allows the presentation of uncontrolled and unbiased information and views that showcases how the present economic and political situation is actually like.
Through online freedom of speech, the capacity of governments to control what sort of information is presented to the general public is severely limited thus necessitating the various restrictions that were presented in the previous section of this paper. The following section will delve into the justification for the limitation of online free speech. It
Justifying the Limitation of Online Free Speech
As mentioned earlier, online free speech can either act as a great instrument for progressive social change or violent social consequences depending on its inherent application. Limitations to free speech (whether in the virtual or real-world) should thus be created in terms of their intended social consequences and be justifiable rather than a generalized limitation on certain topics (Tsering, 1).
For example, the protest of the Westboro Baptist Church members at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Mathew Synder should have been prevented due to the intended social consequence of inciting discrimination against homosexual groups.
The purpose of such a protest was obviously to continue to propagate the idea of hate and bias against the homosexual population and as such, can be considered an abuse of an inherent right. Similarly, the depiction of President Obama as a chimpanzee being shot is equally an abuse of rights since it directly connects to the various events suffered by the African American people that constitute racial prejudice and discrimination (Tsering, 1).
What must be understood is that while there are various critics who state that the right to online free speech should be defended, the fact remains that its utilization as a platform for the spread of destabilizing and hateful ideas prevents it from becoming a right that does not need to be limited (Pelosi, 1).
Allowing the unmitigated spread of socially damaging ideas and causes not only creates societal destabilization as seen in the various cases in the Middle East but incites different groups to spread hate-filled messages which do not have any positive effect on society (Pelosi, 1).
The fact is the freedom of speech, in its ideal form, acts as an integral component in a check and balances system that ensures that the government acts for the benefit of the public. By ensuring that critical public issues such as war, economic rights and other societal problems are allowed to be discussed openly and without censorship, this in effect guides public opinion either for or against particular government mandates or actions.
This limits the ability of the government to unilaterally act on various whims since it must always take public opinion into consideration before it accomplishes specific actions (Anderson, 120). As a result, this creates a balanced system wherein the government continues to be accountable to the people through the use of the Freedom of Speech.
For example, legislation in the U.S. preventing various offshore drilling activities was actually brought about through the online “Green Movement” and mass public opinion (incited via social media) against the possible environmental damage it would cause. What must be understood though, is that certain limitations must be implemented on particular aspects of the freedom of speech since not all activities created through it can be deemed as socially beneficial (Anderson, 120).
For example, while various posts online are usually based on an individual’s experiences and their points of view, a large percentage of online posts are usually hate-filled rants with insufficient justification behind the posts made. Often times such posts are meant to incite and inflame public opinion with unjustifiable claims.
Reports regarding the illegitimacy of the U.S. President (i.e., the birth certificate issue), claims regarding the religion of the current U.S. president, hate-filled rants directed at government officials or at particular religious are all views that are meant to anger and inflame the general populace due to irrational exuberance, yet, such views have little in the way of sufficient justification behind their implementation (Freedman, 69-70).
Due to its role as steward of societal stability, the government has the responsibility to ensure that elements which seek to destabilize society are limited in order to ensure the propagation of social harmony.
For example, the case of the arrest of the Ku Klux Kan leader in the Brandenburg vs. Ohio case is a clear example of the government performing its role as a social steward by limiting actions (racial hatred) that creates strife and destabilization in society (Freedman, 69-70). It is based on cases such as this that certain justifiable limitations on the Freedom of Online Speech can be implemented so long as they are meant to prevent the spread of socially destabilizing messages of hatred, bias and anger.
Based on the facts presented it can be seen that the freedom of speech online is an essential concept to society since it acts as a platform of not only the free exchange of information, ideas and concepts but also as an integral part of a checks and balances system between society and the government.
What must be understood, though, is that online freedom of speech can easily be abused in order to spread messages detrimental towards continued societal harmony. It is due to this that the government, acting as a steward of societal stability, needs to impose certain justifiable limitations on the utilization of the freedom of speech online in order to ensure that any action incited by free speech does not damage the current peaceful societal structure we enjoy today.
Given the current state of the news media, an alternative means of spreading news and information is necessary, however, such freedoms need to be controlled through implicit consent from the general public and not through the unilateral implementation utilized by the government.
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