The Freedom To Lie

Francisco Goya’s Two Old Men.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been considering the proliferation of hatred and how it has been affecting countries as of late. The shootings in Christchurch and Pittsburgh came from hatred of foreigners and anti-Semitic sentiment. But violence isn’t the only thing hatred spawned. Donald Trump ran on a platform fueled by hatred of whatever was on hand. Brexit appears to be influenced by anti-immigrant fears. These are just a few examples. There are many more to be had.

Curbing this trend is complicated. The world is more connected than conventional wisdom might suggest. We influence each other across language, time, and space. Complicating the matter is the fact that free countries don’t arbitrarily censor speech. This creates a unique problem. Speech is a problem, but it has to be treated with care. One commonality in hate- and fear-based speech is that it is based on false information. While people should have freedom to speak, they cannot have the freedom to lie.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

The world is a little more connected than I think.
Recently New Zealand announced changes to its gun laws. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for President here in the States, expressed support for the changes, implying the U.S. should follow New Zealand’s lead. Naturally, organizations like the National Rifle Association expressed opposite opinions. All of a sudden, New Zealand domestic policy is discussed in American public spaces.

I wanted to be surprised by this. Many Americans couldn’t find New Zealand on a map. Now the only thing they know about New Zealand is that they don’t like the country’s new gun laws. None of this will affect them (unless they work in a gun factory, maybe).

Then again, the result shouldn’t be so surprising. It’s not like people outside the U.S. have been reluctant to react to U.S. domestic policy. People love judging each other. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be such fans of petty competition. With mass media able to report on things in real time and across languages, the connected world can only react to what happens everywhere. The only way to get around this is to become authoritarian and manually control speech, like North Korea or Russia.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Talk is cheap, and it’s only getting cheaper.
Mr. Sanders is a U.S. Senator. He can actually write law. He can vote to pass laws. He can even vote to override executive approval on laws. What this means is that his comment on Twitter turned New Zealand domestic law into a U.S. domestic policy issue. Now, there gets to be American-style political discussion over it.

If foreign policy can spread like this – even from small countries to large ones – then what does it say about other things? It would be nice if only decency and sensibility flowed between borders. As I’ve mentioned previously, this isn’t the case. Nasty things like irrational fear and ignorant hatred also go from place to place. I don’t think any one place can be said to have invented it. I can say that each place has people who have swaddled themselves in it.

And once again, how does someone stop the speech that spreads these ideas without becoming Russia or North Korea? Making speech illegal is a big deal. Done poorly, it can stop much more than just hateful people. In the ideal, it will only stop people who say things that can get other people hurt or killed. To make matters worse, in my country the President signed an executive order about free speech on college campuses(whatever THAT means). The general idea behind it is that conservative students are being censored more often by liberals. That idea is not true.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

That lack of truth is something I think can be regulated.
Social media needs the most work on this. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube started their sites without any idea of how hate speech could proliferate on them. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been surprising that bad ideas can spread just as quickly as good ones. Lies go around faster than truth. Facebook in particular was aware of this.

Right now, social media isn’t regulated on how it magnifies false speech. Ideally, they could find ways to teach their algorithms to diminish the impact and spread of false information. It would be like surgeon general’s warnings on cigarettes. “WARNING: This hate speech is not true and may end up getting you killed or incarcerated.”

Outside of that, I think other media needs to work on how it portrays speech that’s factually untrue. There is no debate between a flat-earther and reality as we know it. Even equal time spent debunking it gives it more weight than it deserves.

On an individual level, I think the greatest difficulty is in trying to reconnect people who insist their lies are true and valid to the rest of humanity. The urge is to ostracize and dismiss individuals. That dismissal just makes them ripe for feeling like they belong in hate-filled communities. What they believe is not true, but it doesn’t devalue them as human beings. In this way, I think ideas have to get separated from identity.

Lies are not equal to facts. Speech is not equal to identity. Humanity can’t afford to pretend to be isolated. What happens to one of us happens to us all.