Free speech absolutists have not been having it their own way recently.
A decade ago normative interpretations of freedom of expression under international human rights law and under relevant resolutions of the Human Rights Council were fairly finely balanced between the ‘anything goes’ ideology espoused by the United States (US) as well as by American human rights lawyers and experts (including several Special Rapporteurs) on the one hand, and those States and experts (especially from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – OIC) advocating a far more interventionist approach, on the other. However, over recent years the needle has shifted discernibly towards the latter view.
There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important are, first, a growing recognition, initially on the part of European countries but also increasingly in the US, of the growing threat posed by incitement to religious or racial hatred (i.e., ‘hate speech’) to human rights in the digital age, and second, a growing acknowledgement that disinformation (or ‘fake news’) spread online can no longer be held in check by societal checks and balances (i.e., the long-held American view that ‘best antidote to bad speech is more speech’) and thus poses a direct threat to democracy. In a stark example of the latter point, the administration of President Joe Biden has repeatedly acknowledged, and promised to respond to, the key role that disinformation about US elections (i.e., ‘stop the steal’) played in inciting the mob that attacked Congress in January 2021.
Today, the international community, including members of the Human Rights Council, while certainly not united on the thorny question of the threshold between speech that is ok and speech that is not, at least share something of a (albeit wide) common ground.
What is more, that growing intergovernmental consensus has been reflected in the operations of another former absolutist bastion of free speech: the social media giants. Meta (formerly Facebook) and Twitter have been at the forefront of this shift, bringing in increasingly sophisticated content moderation protocols heavily influenced by international human rights law and by guidance provided by Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, and UN frameworks like the Rabat Plan of Action.
Is Larry soaring or hurtling towards the ground?
Which makes recent developments at Twitter (Larry is the name of the blue Twitter bird), following the company’s takeover by Elon Musk, all the more dispiriting – but also all the more instructive (i.e., demonstrating that the Human Rights Council and the wider UN have been moving in the right direction over the past ten years).
Elon Musk is a freedom of expression absolutist who, moreover, subscribes to the widely held view among such extremists that free speech is being threatened by a censoring ‘woke’ orthodoxy.
Musk arrived at Twitter with a hard-line approach based on a belief that the platform’s efforts over recent years to check hate speech and malicious disinformation is part of some left-wing plot to destroy free speech and thus, in his mind, to threaten democracy. That is why he is now on a crusade to allow suspended users back on to the platform. The accounts of Donald Trump, Kanye West, and Jordan Peterson have been reinstated, along with nearly all those that were suspended for falling foul of old Twitter’s content rules on abuse, disinformation, and hate speech.
This means that Twitter is about to turn into a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous experiment in the reality of free expression without limit.
Feature photo – Picture by Akshar Dave on Unsplash
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