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Fake News – Freedom of Expression in a Digital Age

Published on 20 July 2020 at 11:13

Expression is arguably what gives us a purpose for participating and engaging with current affairs, hundreds of thousands if not millions have died fighting to protect their right to expression or in search for it. In recent years expression is coming to the forefront of most societies, and the pursuit to exercise one’s freedom of expression is evidential in today’s modern societies. Whether it be in Ireland with the last three referendums or in Hong Kong, expression is something that we are willing to put ourselves in the firing line for. However, whilst freedom of expression is for the most part a good thing, we also have the likes of Far-Right groups and politicians expressing their beliefs. With the likes of the United Kingdom Leaving the EU and the “rise of national populists across Europe, like Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungry” (Eatwell & Goodwin, 2018) or even the use incitement of hatred over the use of Social Media but also in traditional print media too; from Donald Trump’s rants to Israel Folau’s justification for his religious based opinions, or a Guardian article claiming that David Cameron losing a child was a “privileged pain.” The question arises, are there cases where expression should be limited? John Stuart Mill, in his essay “On Liberty” provides a practical solution.

John Stuart Mill proposed that if all of ‘mankind’ were to silence one individual then who is to say that individual cannot silence the rest of ‘mankind.’ It poses the question should we let the likes of the far right express their belief? and who are we to question it? The USA during the Cold War completely ignored this narrative in the sense that “You could not develop your economy unless you were a democracy” (Luce, 2017).  Expression was limited, you either celebrated democracy or you didn’t, or visa versa in the USSR. Since then, the majority of the world has allowed citizens to criticise and critique democracy, so much so, that the rise of National populism, has threatened the very existence of the largest free trading bloc on the planet – The European Union. However, we fall into politics’ own Catch 22: If we limit freedom of expression, we silence, a perhaps dangerous, group in society, but at the same time feed into their Far – Right narrative, where we control what is said in society. If we follow the narrative of Mill instead; that “those who desire to supress [an argument], of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind” In other words, we cannot merely dismiss someone’s view as false and silence them; but rather enter into a debate and prove that they are false. James O’Brien; a self-confessed liberal and talk show host on LBC in the United Kingdom, does fulfil Mills’ belief in the sense that he uses rhetoric and knowledge to challenge EDL (The English defence League) reading, Islamophobic, Brexit supporting, far right supports. He doesn’t silence them; as that would only fuel their hatred, but rather he indulges and defeats their rhetoric and makes the point that “Almost everywhere, blatant lies are offered up as balance to demonstratable truths…and any attempt to correct misleading statements is decried as evidence of an unspecified but deeply suspect ‘agenda’….” By limiting expression, according to both Mills and O’Brien, it would only lead to more people believing in a flawed system. By simply silencing the “individual” does not mean that the “individual” disappears but rather grows in strength and hostility, similar to placing a plaster on an infected wound, by covering it up, doesn’t make the problem go away.

This same logic can be applied to the small number of “Angry Old White Men who will soon die” (Eatwell & Goodwin, 2018). For example; there are a select few people by the likes of Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump etc, whom have expressed some level of discontent with the likes of  Gretta Thunberg and her strikes, is irrespective of the point, as Mills’ logic points out we, mankind, shouldn’t dismiss what these, individuals (Putin, Trump, Johnson) are saying but rather debate and discuss their logic behind what they have to say. But what if it’s over Social Media? Does Mills’ theory become irrelevant?  Seen as it’s so hard to constitute the incitement of hatred, it is even more difficult to regulate it. Who is to say what is wrong and what is right?

The difference between saying something on social media and saying something in real life, is the scale of the audience, and who can say it. If ‘Person A’ says something irresponsible or offensive, it is confined to the people he said it to and, can be reported to relevant authorities juxtaposed to Twitter for example, where if ‘Person B’ writes something irresponsible or offensive it can go viral for millions to see, and there is no policing body to handle it. Social Media ultimately has no borders, so should we be able to limit or ban ‘Person B’s freedom of expression online? Facebook, in 2018 after banning the infamous Far right group ‘Britain First’ summed up why we should limit our freedom of expression online when inciting hatred: “We are an open platform for all ideas and political speech goes to the heart of free expression…but political views can and should be expressed without hate. People can express robust and controversial opinions without needing to denigrate others on the basis of who they are.” In terms of limiting freedom of expression over social media, the model provided by Facebook is an excellent one to follow, and in the case of social media should be implemented. We are now seeing Twitter step up to the mark, removing tweets that incite hatred, and warning messages on ones that may be spreading false information.

Finally; Traditional Media. For over a century the media has played an important role in history. Whether it was the rise and fall of Nazi Germany or raising awareness of the Vietnam war over television, media has played a crucial part in how we shape our opinions. The press possesses a very influential tool. Recently there has been a noticeable increase in articles, often from tabloids in the UK, that spread false rumours or Fake News.” In 2017 “The Sun carried a comment piece under the headline of ‘If We Want Peace…We Need Less Islam’….”  Needless to say, that although this was an opinion, it appeals to many readers and is a clear incitement of hatred. The scary thing is that this wasn’t a one-off article in August 2018, Boris Johnson in his Daily Telegraph column went on to describe Muslim women as ‘bank robbers and letter boxes.” Both cases are not beliefs that can be reckoned with in the way Mill wanted, again we find ourselves helpless because imposing a restriction on what the press can, and cannot say, is perceived to be almost Hitleresque and open for abuse. If we are to follow the model that John Stuart Mill proposes, that “we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false” we should limit the freedom of expression of the press because; if their job is to report the truth, but rather, they spread falsehoods instead, then they must be forbidden as a result.

John Stuart Mill provides the framework for our freedom of expression, from politics to social media and the press. There are some instances where we should limit freedom of expression, i.e. social media, and opinion pieces in written media. We live in a society where we are held responsible for our actions in the way that Mill wished. We can still participate in society, whether it be through debates or peaceful protests and referendum. However, once hatred is incited, it is our common duty to stand up for what we believe to challenge what the opposition believe; If the individual is supressed so too is all of mankind. Many questions arise when looking at whether we should limit our expression, such as who is to tell us or is it moral? Mill provides a sound theory around it, but it isn’t until we look at various examples do, we truly understand why we should limit our expression in some instances and not in others. The 20th century provides as much explanation if we take the two extremes – complete freedom of expression which ultimately lead to the rise of Hitler and complete lack of expression which helped contribute to Cold War tensions. Communication and actively engaging and debating with your opposite belief in a civil, non violent or hateful manner, is a much more progressive solution than completely isolating a particular belief altogether. Complete limitation on expression would be inherently bad for society, but there are cases where regulation would be beneficial.


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