The Internet and Free Speech

The Internet brought self-publishing to the common man. That may have done more for free speech than the First Amendment. But all that unfettered freedom has a dark side, too. The freedom to lie. The freedom to libel. The freedom to make false allegations. The freedom to bully. The freedom to invade privacy. And the freedom to destroy competitors, ex-lovers, neighbors with yapping dogs, 14-year-old girls having bad-hair days, the cop who gave you a ticket for doing 90 in a school zone, and the overworked waitress who took too long to refill your iced tea.

Having fun yet? Oh, I forgot the freedom to do it all anonymously.

As a writer, I’ve always believed that Free Speech is the most important freedom Americans have. But I’ve also come to believe in recent years that the greatest threat to Free Speech is people who lie and libel with impunity online.

shutterstock_125458373Before the “irresponsibles” spoil it for all of us, we need to draw a line in the sand, Dude. That line is Truth with a capital T. Yes, I know Truth isn’t always black or white. But let’s leave the shades of gray out of this for the moment and consider only one of the extremes. Should anyone have the right to damage you with blatant, outright lies?

Any reasonable person would take a New York nanosecond to shout “NO!” But sadly the answer is “YES” – at least in the free-fire zone called the Internet.

Have you ever been caught in the cross-fire? Sorry, Bucky. You’re collateral damage to a higher cause – Free Speech.

If you want to read a real-life horror story filled with the sad sagas of dozens of victims, read a book called Violated Online: How Online Slander Can Destroy Your Life by Steven Wyer. It should be required reading for anyone with Internet access and a voter registration card. That includes judges and legislators.

Mr. Wyer’s sobering book contains numerous examples of how people’s lives have been ruined by a perfect storm of new, converging laws, technologies and trends, such as:

  • Anti-SLAPP statutes
  • Internet anonymity
  • Social networks that facilitate viral communications
  • Anonymous text bots that relentlessly record the location of every piece of information on the Internet whether it is true or false.
  • Online information archives, such as the Library of Congress, that dutifully store false allegations
  • Search engines that lead people directly to those lies for decades

Want to see how easy it is to damage someone? Just visit any complaint site like RipoffReport.com, AbusiveMen.com, PissedOff.com or DatingPsychos.com. Anyone can start a vicious rumor about someone he or she doesn’t like, such as the poor kid in class who wore mismatching socks, a competitor, or political opponent. The bigger the lie, the faster and farther it spreads. And once it’s gone viral, it’s impossible to stop.

Want to see how long you can keep the fun going? Read the story on Snopes.com about an email circulating since 2005. It lists compensation details of CEOs of major charities. Only one problem: the information is bogus. Who knows how much suffering this email caused by diverting badly needed contributions from those in need!

In Texas, at least one politician has already used the state’s new anti-SLAPP statute as a shield to attack private citizens. Texas courts have upheld the politician’s right to do so. And the Texas governor vetoed an ethics bill last month that contained a provision that would have made it more difficult for politicians to attack private citizens anonymously.

A growing body of research underscores how psychology as well as technology can fuel the persistence of misinformation and “belief echoes.” Most people tend to continue believing misinformation even after it has been proven untrue. Most often, attempts to expose lies actually strengthen belief in the misinformation.

The Internet is like an echo chamber. When social networks pick up the news and the Library of Congress archives all the Tweets about you, you suddenly become a Number One search result on Google, sentenced to a virtual pillory for life without due process.

Your phone stops ringing. Your friends shun you. Even your dog pees on your rug. It’s game over, Bubba. So what if they lied! They got to vent.

Want to clean up this mess? A good start would be to teach kids NEVER to trust people using pseudonyms online. Perhaps someday we could even make the use of online pseudonyms illegal. If people fear they might be held accountable for damaging lies, they might think twice before publishing them to the world.

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One thought on “The Internet and Free Speech

  1. One of the things that usually doesn’t get talked about or taught along with the concept of Freedom is the concept of Responsibility. If you are Free, you are responsible for how you use that freedom. Only you. That’s why it’s called freedom. If you aren’t free, then someone else is responsible.

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