Free speech in a global village

In 1942 large numbers of American GIs were posted to Britain, forcing the world’s two leading English-speaking cultures to take stock of each other. George Orwell, like many Englishmen, found the newcomers hard to take: “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain in now Occupied Territory.” The Americans grated on English nerves and were popularly dismissed as “oversexed, overpaid, overfed and over here.” Most GIs were equally unimpressed. They hated the weather, were baffled by the English class system and hated the general dreariness of the culture. After the initial froideur, however, both sides began to notice a few of the other’s virtues. The Americans were brash, but they were also outspoken, prosperous and modern in ways the British could barely imagine. On the other hand, black GIs – still  segregated in the US army, for all practical purposes – found themselves treated with far more respect than they were back home.

This brief exposure to and partial absorption of different cultural norms prefigured many of the more consequential exchanges that new information technology was about to deliver. Twenty years after the Americans ‘occupied’ London, the Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” As the British historian Timothy Garton Ash shrewdly points out, McLuhan’s iconic phrase contains a telling contradiction: “Villages are small, usually homogeneous and conformist places,” notes Garton Ash. “Tolerance is not their hallmark. When things get rough, villagers who have been neighbours all their lives can end up murdering each other: Serb and Bosniak, Hutu and Tutsi. ‘Global village’ is neither where we are nor where we should want to be.”

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 became a tipping point for this global village. Words in one country provoked edicts in a second and lethal reactions in many others. Twenty-six years later the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper would lead to the death of more than 240 people in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and Pakistan. Significantly, there were no deaths in Denmark. Within a decade of this event, the power to provoke global outrage digitally had become the norm. Nevertheless most developed countries still thought of the new digital platforms as an overwhelming force for good.

The Arab Spring began in December 2010, galvanized by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor. Mohamed Bouazizi’s unlicensed cart was confiscated by a city official and he was beaten and humiliated when he tried to recover it – it was the only income for his family of eight.

Exasperated by the petty humiliation that had become routine under the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Bouazizi set himself on fire outside of an official building. When social media sites exposed the crackdown on the ensuing protests, overwhelming resentment against Ben Ali quickly led to his overthrow. (With retrospect it seems that the revolution was also emboldened by the publication of Wikileaks documents that exposed the regime’s corrupt and repressive practices.) When similar protests erupted throughout the Middle East there was a lot of talk about Twitter and Facebook “revolutions” that would bring transparency and accountability to the wider world and “democratize” supposedly backward places like the Middle East.

In 2017 the naivety of these predictions is obvious. The Arab Spring led either to political chaos or further repression and Twitter and Facebook have facilitated the rise of nationalist demagogues in Hungary, India, the Philippines and the United States. Even worse, Facebook’s egregious laissez-faire attitude to its news feed allowed Russia to meddle in the 2016 US elections with unimaginable ease. Over two years some 150 million Facebook users were given misleading information dispersed through the Orwellian sounding ‘Internet Research Agency’ (IRA) linked to the Kremlin. The IRA posted 80,000 posts via fake accounts disguised to look as though they belonged to US citizens. Within Europe, Russia has undertaken equally sinister campaigns to stir up illiberal opinions and xenophobic reactions before key elections. These include a notorious fictional news item in January 2016 about the rape of an underage Russian-German girl by men that variously described as “Arab” or “Muslim.”

The ubiquity of digital communication has created an ambivalent moment in the global village. Information can now be dispersed further and faster than ever before, but it can also be used to wreak havoc in new ways.

Crucially, US control of the internet’s key infrastructure has made cyberspace into a de facto First Amendment domain. However, as Timothy Garton Ash observes, the culture that enabled this First Amendment is “the product of judicial rulings, laws and political decisions over the 100 years since the First World War, and mainly from the last half century.”

The global extension of a practically untrammelled free-speech culture through the internet, has allowed “virtual emigration to the US” through the use of online platforms, with paradoxical and largely unpredictable consequences. Like the British in the 1940s, the rest of the world is now ‘occupied’ by free-speech platforms that in many ways embody the highest ideals of the US constitution but are also subject to abuse and manipulation and governed by the whimsical terms of service of the private corporations that own them. Furthermore, the parochial tensions in our global village have had almost no time to create the social, political and judicial accommodations which allow such a culture to thrive.

The result has been a confusing mishmash of misinformation, transparency and accountability. We know more than ever about political chicanery and plutocratic mischief, but are also more susceptible to rumour. We “name and shame” wrongdoers but cannot set the record straight when someone has been smeared. In this transitional moment, our information travels globally, while most of us remain within the homogeneity and conformity of our villages. It is a moment at which societies like ours should ensure that we create the proper conditions for freedom of expression to thrive rather than improvising responses to the shifts and shocks of the new dispensation.

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