Letters from the Editors Column

Freedom of Expression on the Internet: Two Sides of the Same Coin

By Silvia Ecclesia

The Internet is a place of freedom and equality. The digital space was born  a utopia, free from States’ intervention and dominated by internal, self-imposed rules that were followed by  users out of respect for what the Internet represented. This was possible in the 1990s when computers and the world wide web were available only for true connoisseurs and innovators drawn to these new promising technologies. Now that the Internet kept its promise and became our everyday companion, respect and good manners are not sufficient for its regulation. 

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and all its consequences, the Internet has become our new space for socialization and, with that, also our new space for information. The increased need for fast and concise updates on both the situation caused by the virus and  the rapid changes in containment policies caused what the media called an “Infodemic”. Not that fake and inaccurate news were inexistent before; however, now that people have to rely more on the Internet for information, it is becoming clear that many lack the instruments to recognize what is true and what is false. 

One day, around the dinner table, my mother, with much determination, started to explain to us how the Germans were measuring the infection rates in a different way – making it seem like there were fewer cases of Covid-19 in Germany than in Italy. She read it on Facebook, so it must be true! Some time after that, my sister told us how the Italian government participated in a conspiracy to elect Biden as the new president of the US. She saw it on TikTok, so it must be true! We trust the Internet, often without question. 

Social media have become something more than what they were conceived to be, something that they are not equipped to handle. While the news that my mother and sister had read were quite innocuous (and it was easy to convince them of their dubious reliability), social media can have a devastating impact on public opinion and there are many examples to show it. 

In 2018, in Myanmar, Facebook was transformed into a political tool by the government’s military. Posts inciting hatred towards the Muslim minority of the country populated the platform, worsening the situation of the Rohingya minority group and supporting the ongoing genocide. The platform  took some time to recognize the hatred campaign and contain it: but it was already too late. 

The control of political discourse in cyberspace, the ban of “western” social media in China and Middle Eastern countries, the prohibition of  VPNs, and the monitoring of the Internet are far from being lifted in several countries. The Great Firewall in China as well as the numerous Internet shutdowns ongoing in India are just two examples of how cyberspace has become a place of political action and control.  

Freedom of speech in the digital world is not the truth for everyone. 

On the other hand, the world wide web is truly a place of freedom for those who struggle to make their voice heard. It opens opportunities for expression that would otherwise not be possible offline. While the Chinese government was hiring an army of “content moderators” for signalling those “suspect” users, the Chinese netizens were finding new and creative codes to say what they wanted to say. 

While the dark web in the minds of most people is associated with arms and drug smuggling, pornography, pedophilia and other illicit activities, it is also a place of freedom and free expression for those who face censorship in their countries. Journalism and whistle-blowing are among the first activities to be conducted in encrypted networks like The Tor Project (ToR). Activists, journalists, and informants all benefit from the existence of anonymous platforms and, overall, the existence of the Internet. 

Freedom of expression in cyberspace is a highly controversial matter. The topic has become more and more salient given the increased number of fake and polarizing news that are appearing in front of  users’ eyes. Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram are under the spotlight. States ask them to regulate the content they show; however, how can we expect a website conceived for sharing images and finding old friends to be burdened with the responsibility of moderating highly controversial and politicized messages?  

While these platforms struggle to satisfy the governments’ requests through the employment of content moderators or new strategies like the Facebook Oversight Board, all of them aim to remain afloat, waiting for the right algorithm that would take on the burden and become the prime content moderator of the Internet. However, after seeing how complicated and crucial the matter of freedom of speech is in cyberspace, can we really put this controversial task in the hands of artificial intelligence? How can the algorithm be sure to censor only harmful content and not activists’ reports on human rights abuses, journalistic inquiries on illicit activities, or awareness campaigns on sensitive issues? 

The Internet was born a utopia: free, equal, and just for everybody. And that should still be the vision it pursues. While fake news and hate speech should be banned from cyberspace, freedom should remain the crucial characteristic of the Internet. The opportunity it gives to everyone to be the creators of their own content is what makes it special. The Internet was born and should remain a place of freedom: free from hatred and lies, but also free from censorship and silencing. 

Letters from the Editors is a rotating column, written by the Graduate Press Editorial Board. It is meant to serve as a platform to discuss regional, personal, and political issues surrounding the role of journalism and freedom of speech in their respective societies.

Royalty free image from rawpixel.com

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