Let’s get one thing straight — I’m not trying to be melodramatic.
This isn’t intended to be clickbait, or a reckless, harried opinion piece from some internet rag.
The ‘death of free speech’ isn’t a phrase I would wave around lightly. But then again, none of our constitutional rights should be.
From a constitutional standpoint, no, free speech isn’t dying. Our Founding Padres did a phenomenal job of turning philosophical human rights into the base legislature of a newly-founded free country. From all legal standpoints, free speech is not dead. Or even close to dying.
But it begs the question, even if you are protected by law, courts, and constitution to speak your mind and state your opinion, are you ever really protected? When it comes to the world wide web, are you ever safe from the fallout of what comes out of your mouth—or keyboard? In my opinion (for the sake of civility) the answer is No.
Free speech is constitutionally alive, but your ability to speak freely is essentially nonexistent.
Why? Because of what the internet is. It’s connectivity at its core. Your identity, your email, your career, your personal information, hell, even your ADDRESS can be sourced from something you put online. And the inability to limit exactly whom you’re talking to or how far your speech travels—that’s dangerous.
The internet isn’t speaking, it’s yelling at the top of your lungs and having the words permanently etched into the matrix. And even if you think you’re only whispering to your room full of followers, some guy half-way around the world can hear what you say.
Whether it’s an inside joke, an off-color comment, or even simply a firm stance in an argument, the far-reaching, connected nature of the web paired with society’s sensitivities can result in a lot of harm to you, your job, and your reputation. Simply put, your freedom of speech and a lack of forethought can ruin your life online.
Let’s take the case of Justine Sacco, for instance.
You may have heard of the 30-year-old former director of corporate communications thanks to a single and now infamous tweet.
As many of us do when we’re bored, Sacco began live-tweeting her long journey to South Africa from NYC. What started as just idle-minded tweets about the not-so-pleasantries of travel such as passengers with body odor and bad food, ended with an a-bomb of misjudgment that took a toll on every aspect of her life.
One last tweet before the final leg of her journey, a momentary lack of judgment, and a tasteless joke. What’s the worst that could happen? She only had 170 followers.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding, I’m white!”
She hadn’t even landed before a veritable shit-storm descended on her. And not just her digital footprint. Her entire life.
Despite her meager following, she had become a worldwide trend on Twitter. Within fewer hours, people threatened to rape, shoot, kill and torture her. And not just on Twitter. The wrath of the many had found her other accounts on Facebook and Instagram and began contacting friends and family members with the same barbaric threats.
Does this sound like someone who feels protected? Do you think that Justine felt safe in the months to come? I think it goes without saying she regrets it, and that this momentary lapse in judgment will haunt her forever.
Am I defending what she said? Hell no. Am I saying that she shouldn’t be held accountable for what she chose to post publicly? Again, no. But ask yourself, do you really think what she said deserved to leave her life in ruins?
But things are different in this situation from traditional free speech, right? This was on the internet, a public forum, and she chose to say something stupid, something instigating, so that’s on her… right?
During the civil rights era, the KKK was a little more active and volatile than they are today. And yet, under constitutional law -they are protected. Their right to speak their mind was protected. Their right to assembly, to parade in public, was not only protected – but often with an armed police escort.
That’s right, an organization whose core principles revolve around hate and hate speech was not only protected by law but was literally protected from harm by our very own police force. The constitution supports not only their right to free speech but also provides a safety net for their freedom of assembly, a statute reaffirmed by the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio Supreme Court case.
By this logic, Justine Sacco was less protected from damages than the Ku Klux Klan.
You could make the argument all of this is irrelevant — that everyone should be held accountable for their actions or words —and I would agree. You should be thoughtful, tactful, and cautious when speaking your mind, especially if you’re going to post it on the web.
But have we reached a point where the accountability we are being held to has far surpassed the contents of our actions?
In 2013, at a tech conference known as PyCon, there was another tweet heard round the world. Adria Richards, a female developer, was in attendance at the conference when she found herself distracted by the conversation of two male developers behind her.
As anyone who has ever been to a corporate conference knows, or possibly can imagine, they can be long, tiring and tend to lose their audience’s focus after day two. So it’s not surprising to hear that two male tech bros were making jokes about “Forking” and “big dongles” (tech jargon, for those that don’t know) to alleviate their boredom during a (most likely boring) three-day conference, leading to a term commonly used to describe this incident: Donglegate.
Rather than attempt to talk to them like a human or even address the issue to a staff member, Adria went straight for the public forum. She snapped a picture of the two jokesters, posting their picture online, tagging the conference hashtag in the tweet and sending it out to her several hundred followers, citing men like these as the reason behind the difficulties of being a woman in the tech industry. Besides, they were breaking PyCon’s code of conduct.
Were their comments rude, especially to the speaker? Yes. A bit immature? Definitely. Sexist? Oppressive? Directed at Richards or any woman in general? A resounding NO. Did they deserve to publicly shamed, photographed without their knowledge, accused personally of the objectification of women, be ejected from the conference and lose their jobs? No, but all of that happened. And unlike Sacco, it wasn’t even their choice to have this posted online.
But the internet is a double-edged sword, and even those “social justice warriors” of the web can get cut.
Turns out, some of the men in that male-dominated field didn’t take a liking to the way things netted out for the Donglers at the conference. Richards’ personal profiles and blog began being spammed with hate mail, death and rape threats.
Her accounts were hacked, altered, and deleted from the deepest corners of the web. Even her employer began experiencing cyber attacks including one that shut down their servers, along with threats that the attacks would not cease until she was dismissed from her position.
Was she protected? Were they?
With connectivity all around us and the relative permanence of everything you post online, the internet has become a dangerous place. Seriously, remember those “The More You Know” PSA’s that used to warn about the dangers of drugs and talking to strangers? Now they’re talking about internet posting as a potential threat for children. And they’re right.
The internet is the Wild Wild West, a digital frontier that’s mostly lawless, unsupervised, and extremely unforgiving.
You would think with the addition of comments, form fields, reply buttons, and tweets, the web would be a catalyst for communication; a forum of free speech that would open up conversation—and you would be right. But more outlets for communication and the ease at which you can share (mis)information means that everyone can speak their mind and state their opinion—and it’s not always the most benevolent speech that comes to the surface.
While freedom of speech still exists in this country by law, your ability to exercise it on the web is going extinct.
We’ve become a nation of the offended, ready to jump down someone’s throat for every little infraction of speech or lapse of judgment. There is no forgiveness anymore, only outrage.
We live in a time where people become more outraged at differing opinions than to respect a different point of view. We share and spread unproven, unsubstantiated click-bait articles in their initial wake, but refrain from posting follow-ups and retractions, the ones that provide the full story with the facts.
Remember the “Drunk” Girl on Hollywood Blvd. viral video? The one where a girl pretended to be drunk and ask guys to take her home with the intent of exposing men as sexual predators?
Total hoax. Everyone in the video was an actor, and were told they would be participating in the pilot of a new prank reality show. When the true nature of the video went viral, they were outraged. Some were bribed by the producers with money and free drinks. Even the star of the show, the “drunk girl,” posted a retraction video to try to clear the men’s names.
And yet despite the hoax being picked up by major media, the original video had over 7 million views before it was taken down, while the retraction has less than 700,000.
We would rather talk about and spread that which makes us angry instead of that which gives us hope.
Why are we this way? Maybe because we actually like being outraged. That our initial anger causes us to react to sensationalistic media, our social desire to look like we care about important issues causes us to share it, and our apathy and laziness after the fact keeps us from doing anything to help the situation.
Or maybe it’s because we live in an age of social seriousness, where opinions and stances are automatically considered bigotry and partisanship. Where political correctness has made us hyper-sensitive to human error. Where we become instantly morally outraged and offended at a difference of opinion. Where we, before bothering to find out the truth, join the herd and create assumptions based on perpetuated and pre-conceived notions.
Where every reasonable, logical and objective opinion is drowned out by stifling arguments—and the only stance you can take is either completely for or vehemently against an idea.
It’s time we faced the facts about the spread of information in the modern age:
Lies always spread faster than the truth, empathy has given way to judgment, objectivity has been replaced by polarization, and most importantly, it’s easier to be outraged than to be informed, accepting, or forgiving.
[quote_left]While freedom of speech still exists in this country by law, your ability to exercise it on the web is going extinct.[/quote_left]
All the noise and the arguing and the fighting don’t get things done. The outrage and offended-ness don’t force people to agree. They polarize us. They force us to take sides, to stand in the same corner with extremists who don’t represent our true feelings. It destroys empathy and sympathy and compassion and forgiveness and builds a nation divided in misunderstanding and preconceived notions.
There will always be conflicting voices; the ability to speak your mind is what makes this country great. But our voices have lost the ability to talk to each other in civil dialogue; we’re now only able to yell in anger or whisper in judgment. Only the loudest, angriest, most antagonizing voices seek to draw lines in the sand and battle one side against the other. And we, the silent and moderate majority, need to stop feeding into their polarizing agendas.
So my advice to everyone reading is this: either we find a way to keep our conversations civil, to overlook stupid statements, to forgive brief lapses of judgment and communicate with each other like compassionate humans—or we all need to learn to keep our mouths shut and take our lives offline.