March 29, 2017

The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online

A few closing general observations and predictions

Yutan Getzler, an associate professor and department chair at Kenyon College, wrote, “People are people. There was a tendency by people who were involved early on in things like BBS or IRC to overestimate how broadly friendly these spaces were, as they tended to be small and homogenous with regard to gender/race/interests. As much as there are flares of hateful speech, people also can support those who get hated on when it seems broadly unfair.”

Paul Lehto, author, commented, “While the internet powerfully facilitates communication, it doesn’t facilitate all types of communication equally well. We all know that certain kinds of conversations should only take place (if we all wish successful outcomes) in person. Examples include mediation of disputes without an intermediary, sensitive conversations between friends, and finding common ground with political opponents. In examples such as these, the internet helps political allies find each other, and helps amplify disagreements, but does not facilitate the more constructive forms of discourse for many subtle but powerful reasons. The internet being a prominent form of communication causes me to conclude that communication in the next decade will erode in quality.”

Laura Stockwell, digital strategy consultant and owner of Strat School, said, “We will see new types of interactions when Gen Z reaches maturity, in the next 20-30 years. This generation is incredibly collaborative … and they are creating and consuming media from each other at a very early age. They will not only better understand how to communicate more clearly in the digital space, but, if you subscribe to theories of media ecology, they will think in a more tribal way.”

Charlie Firestone, communications and society program executive director and vice president at The Aspen Institute, commented, “It will be more contentious in the coming four to five years because the world is continuing in that direction. But by about five years from now I think [the current level of influence of negative tone and misinformation online] will reverse itself. People will be fed up with the negativity, and solutions will start to work. I don’t know which solutions will come to be adopted, but a move toward people staying in circles that are civil is one possibility.”

Isto Huvila, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, said, “The emergence and current problems of negative online activities is not a digital problem but rather an issue related to the disintegration and reconfiguration of societies. … There could be (and should be) a social demand for tools that help to support social configurations and inclusivity. We can let technology (or essentially technologists) take the lead but that might not be the best alternative. There seems to be major shift in the attitudes toward free speech. It is essentially a Western value and not everyone sees it as significant as we do. On the other hand the traditional mechanisms of communication that have been used to support, convey and limit that which is included in the idea of free speech are not valid anymore, which makes it difficult to apply the idea of free speech in practice. … We have to be explicit about what we want to see as the value and outcomes of speaking freely, what price we are willing to pay for it and how freely we really want ourselves and others to speak and to whom. Anonymity and privacy will be undoubtedly redefined as well; the current ideas of anonymity and privacy are rather recent concepts. Similarly to free speech, anonymity and privacy need to be defined in relation to digital tools.”

“Those who are promoting the free and open internet as a source of unbiased and representative media, that give a voice to the voiceless in direct competition with corporate-sponsored entertainment conglomerates, will easily find a willing coalition with those who see free speech as above any other concern,” David Morar, a doctoral student and Google policy fellow at George Mason University, wrote hopefully.

And Ben Railton, professor of English and American studies at Fitchburg State University, wrote that online discourse in 2026 will be less shaped by negative activities, observing, “More and more of us – public scholars, but also interested and knowledgeable and engaged folks from all walks of life – are committed to being part of social media and online conversations. More and more of us are willing to read the comments, to engage in discussion and debate, to both add our voices and hear and respond to others. And the vast majority of us are doing so in respectful and collegial and communal ways. We’re influencing the conversation, collectively, and will continue to do so.”