Free Speech in the Age of Social Media
On Monday 3rd December, UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality will host an evening of discussion on Free Speech in the Age of Social Media, exploring the difficulties of upholding freedom of speech in an age when communications cross geographical boundaries, and consequently, country-specific laws governing such practices. Ahead of the event, Colm MacAuliffe (PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London) offers an introduction to the debate and asks, in what circumstances should free speech be allowed?
For over ten years, I worked across the arts and culture industry as a film curator, working with innumerable festivals and, more latterly, archives through the UK, Ireland and beyond. During this time, I developed a specific interest in archive television – television not available on YouTube! – and happened across all manner of British and continental intellectuals, beige suited and chain smoking, merrily discussing the meaning of culture, drunkenly decoding advertisements or even just calmly pointing out the rampant racism inherent in a soap opera. I began to wonder: what happened to the age of intellectuals on television? Through the course of my research, I began to find, or re-discover, television programmes from the BBC and Channel 4 with all sorts of radical messages both blatant and inherent in their productions. Last year, I decided to combine this research with academia and commenced a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London which traces an genealogy of intellectual theory through the academies of France through cultural interlocutors in Britain: New Left Review, Screen, the music press and, indeed, BBC and the early days of Channel 4. This further opened my eyes to the potential – both positive in an entryist sense but also potentially damaging in a cataclysmic sense! – of letting public intellectuals, or indeed any public figure with an opinion, loose on the small screen.
My research is very much rooted within what is termed the “Golden Age of Theory” i.e. post-1968 and ending sometime around the mid 1990s when theory reverted to a small ‘t’ and became quickly historicised through the proliferation of books announcing “An Elegy for Theory”, “Post Theory”, “After Theory” and so on. However, was this age of theory really over? Perhaps theory simply has a history and merely the rhetorical fireworks associated with such a term are now deployed in entirely different networks and fashions.
The role of television has been supplanted by social media in the 21st century; therefore how is ‘theory’, or the role of the public intellectual, applicable to such an all consuming business model such as Facebook? And how do we react when people exercise their freedom for expression on social media? Is the internet transnational and therefore ‘above’ the legal laws of any one country?
To illustrate this, I remembered a television show entitled Hypotheticals from the late 1980s. The show centred around the loquacious Australian QC Geoffrey Robertson hosting a series of discussions around politically pertinent social issues of the day. And on one particular episode, titled ‘A Satanic Scenario’, the singer Yusuf Islam – more commonly known as Cat Stevens – openly called for Salman Rushdie, who was then the subject of a fatwa, to be killed. Without wishing to re-hash thirty year old debates, I began to ponder how would this have played out in 2018? How would this be regulated if it was uttered through the medium of Facebook?
The regulation of free speech can be divided into two camps: social and custom. This is illustrated by the differing approaches to free speech between say, Germany and the US. In the US, the Law stays out of regulation and it is up to the State to regulate. Accordingly, Holocaust denial is allowed. Moreover, it emphasises Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the Nazi’s as quite a shocking move. However, in Germany, free speech is regulated by the Law. One could argue that they do not trust their own society. Either way, Holocaust denial is illegal.
Each of us has a social responsibility. Should we be more alert? And in what circumstances should free speech be allowed? And, in terms of Facebook, which model is more applicable and relevant: the US model? Or the German model?
These conversations were happening thirty years ago as evinced by the Yusuf Islam episode. They are still happening now: Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders was forced to cancel a planned contest inviting people to submit a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad following death threats and large-scale protests in Pakistan. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist protesters are protected under free speech rights. We repeatedly have conversations about what we can and what we cannot say. And these are resurrected every time a new means of communication comes in. I expect our freedom of speech debate on December 3rd to be lively, entertaining and provocative, reflecting upon both the cross disciplinary thrust of Grand Challenges and the all pervasive power of free speech regulations across our entire communications sphere.