The internet broke free speech

The idea of free speech is great and highly important. But when it emerged it could do comparatively little damage, because most individuals had no reach beyond their personal network and the market square. So no matter how silly and possibly damaging something someone said was — the harm was fairly contained. Sure, ideas still traveled. But it took much longer and required extraordinary circumstances.

Now times are different. Anyone with street smartness and a certain intuitive understanding for how to emotionally trigger people can use the internet and tech platforms to spread their message to a huge crowd.

In such an environment, applying the old principle of free speech means that even the most absurd, 100 % fact-free bullshit could instantly be spread to the masses. Sadly, the masses cannot be trusted with being great at filtering out the bullshit, as history has taught us over and over again.

The internet has disrupted free speech, and now the question is: How to move forward. The case of Alex Jones and Infowars shows that the leading tech platforms inevitably become the arbitrators of “truth”. This is extremely undesirable, but also unavoidable — because the alternative of having demagogues, hatemongers and manipulators spread their messages to millions of people at basically zero cost is even worse (and this of course extends to various spheres of extremist ideologies).

On a small-scale level, freedom of speech must prevail. But on the giant scale where the tech platforms operate, it cannot. Which truly sucks. It’s a wide open can of worms. But seriously what other option is there?

Freedom of speech must be defended. But there cannot be an universal “right to distribution”.

Sign up for my weekly email, loaded with great things to read about the digital world. Sent to more than 600 subscribers (August 2018).