Freedom Of Speech On The Internet
The Internet has brought the world a whole new form of media. Today I feel that my thoughts, opinions and reviews have a wider outreach. There was a time when I had no idea what the common people in Britain thought of Bollywood or how much Chinese people enjoyed Raj Kapoor films. I didn't know that Shah Rukh Khan had a fan base in Amsterdam and that some Americans had enjoyed Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake as much as I did. Desicritics itself has put views from the Indian/South Asian community under the scrutiny of the international eye. Such Indian e-magazines and newspapers provide a fresh, contemporary take on politics, media and culture. The NRI perspective, an interesting hybrid on all things Desi is also showcased.
In short, news and views travel faster and the globe is better connected. So much so that the world-wide web is a world in itself, a virtual world that at times mirrors the aspects the real world such as a liberal democracy tainted by intolerance and crime.
The widespread exposure comes with a price. One's thoughts and opinions are constantly judged by a larger group of people who not only may disagree with you but also have an unacceptable or offensive way of voicing their disapproval. While journalists, reviewers and critics are supposed to take such criticism with a good deal of objectivity, the general public also should consider it worthwhile to be respectful in their analysis or rebuttals. Freedom of speech is a privilege, not a liberty that one should take for granted and abuse.
Hate speech online is considered harmless by some who haven't been at the receiving end. What harm could a few hateful words of slander cause, they wonder. They are just words. Well, they would've been "just words" had they not be posted on public forums. Having certain ideas on a platform such as newspapers or the internet is a whole different issue than expressing them at the family dinner or at a bar with one's friends. The platform does matter. Putting up your views on such a broad media panel where it will be read by a general population irrespective of age, advertises and promotes the line of thinking being expressed.
Newspapers and tabloids are held accountable if they promote racism, sexism or baseless defamation. Authors are answerable to both society and media if their comments and views are upsetting towards communities, genders or minorities in general. To ask for an unquestioned freedom of speech on an internet forum where comments and opinions can be posted anonymously is like demanding no censorship, no restraint and no supervision over a form of media that is a lot more influential than most people realize.
If a film review can convince you to watch a particular movie, sexist, fascist, racist and hateful commentary can also be influential depending on who is reading the material. There is always a section of society that looks for justification for their actions and behavior. The sexists want vindication and so do the racists. There are white supremacists who find delight in the sense of belonging that a clan brings them. There are people who surf over the internet and find websites that post disturbing pictures of dead fetuses. Viewing these pictures is upsetting, disturbing and most of all, persuasive. A vulnerable person will want to believe that all abortions are wrong and can be persuaded to act on his disapproving impulse. People have bombed abortion clinics killing doctors and nurses because they were fed pro-life theories by websites. Scientific labs have been attacked and burned down because a group of people saw a few essays about animal research and pictures of chained monkeys on the internet. Years worth of work leading to a cure for a disease goes down the drain. People who use animals for research don't do so for fun or to torture the animal. They do it so that humans can depend on science for answers. Animals shelters put down a particularly dangerous dog so he won't maul a small, defenseless child.
One always finds people who will justify their own violent protest against something that they find disturbing because unfortunately, the internet is like a mirror, a slideshow of our own existing prejudices. One can pull up information that supports pet theories. One can scour for research that proves one side but neglects the other facet of the story. Internet sites and literature seldom provide the other take. This bias can be very compelling. The bandwagon mentality causes people to rationalize their own behavior based on ideas available on the internet. Psychological and economic research has identified "herd behavior" among humans that affects religious riots, violence, political trends, stock market decisions and even every day choices among the general population. Conformism has a significant effect on human behavior.
I had never thought about this before but a month or so ago, I received a startling email from a woman who had read one of my comments on DC. She asked me if she should continue to try and save her abusive marriage instead of applying the Domestic Violence Act. "You said that the laws are too stringent. And if you as a woman feel they are too strict, maybe I should work my marriage out instead of going to the police", she said in her mail. She described a disturbing history of abuse in the marriage and I was astonished by the correlation she had made between my criticism of the stringency of the law and her own relationship which was, from what she detailed, a very unhealthy and unsafe situation to be in. I immediately responded and let her know that I did not in any way justify domestic violence. I felt guilty that my words had actually been misconstrued. I vowed to be more careful. It opened my eyes to the possibility that a person reading my words can be influenced based on their own frame of mind. I can be misunderstood and hence I should be more responsible with how I use them on such a broad platform. But I notice that few people are conscientious enough to acknowledge this sensibility.
Words can brain wash. They do have the ability to feed hatred, insecurities and even fear. If they can inspire somebody to act then they also have the power to justify someone's violence. They can speak in defense of crime, thus promoting criminal activity. They can traget impressionable teens looking for affirmation.The internet is indiscriminate. One never knows who is reading what. Young men and women, children, people who have access to the internet but don't quite have the sense to think for themselves are all exposed to views published on the internet. In such a situation, online forums do require statutes or limits governing the exchanges that take place on that forum.
I recently came upon a very effective and articulate article titled "Freedom of speech (with limits)" on BBC by Julian Baggini that I thought best describes why the internet requires censorship. Here is an excerpt:
"This is why we rightly limit the freedom of people to utter hate speech. Racist words can make people live in fear. Homophobic rantings can legitimise discrimination. Sexist words can buttress sexist practice. It is not "political correctness" to stop people using words to harm others, it is simply fairness and justice."
The author of this article discusses both perspectives: the right for freedom of speech and the responsibility that is required of people who choose to place their ideas on a public forum. My favorite aspect was the little picture illustration accompanying the article. It shows liberty and decency boxing it out. Quite appropriate, I thought.
The bottomline is that if a person lets go of their own decency and does not use self-restraint while exchanging ideas on a public forum, then they are in fact the ones responsible for the censorship. No one says that contradictory ideas are unacceptable. Everybody has the right to their own opinion. But a personal attack only indicates a weak cause or loss of logical articulation. It is a matter of shame that adults would require such supervision during something as necessary as a discussion. An exchange of ideas should only be fed with intellect, views and perspective, not thwarted and choked with the damning havoc of ad hominem.
Very few people are aware that in January of 2006, the United States brought into effect a law barring people from posting or e-mailing of messages intended to annoy people without having included their true identity. A portion of the law is as follows:
"Whoever utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications//shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."
Crank calling is an offense, stalking is an offense and now bullying and threatening on the internet is a cybercrime. Bullies are not just restricted to snatching your lunch packs in school now. They are adults on the internet who are unable to find a more age-worthy form of venting their frustrations and disagreements. They are adult bullies who want to lay their claims on freedom of speech. There are several hate groups on the internet that gain importance through such cultism. Here is a Wikipedia excerpt about "Hate groups":
"Hate groups usually assert that the targets of their attacks are harmful to society, malicious, less fit to be members of society, or are operating some hidden cabal. The evidence hate groups present for these assertions is usually poorly corroborated, and is often based explicitly on the hate group's negative beliefs about the social groups to which the target is or is imagined to belong (e.g. groups based on race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.)."
Another interesting Wikipedia excerpt about vocalization of hatred on the internet, that might explain the behavior of some of the trolls, pulls attention to and may explain why verbal assaults should be regarded as a form of violence:
"By verbally debasing the object of their hate, haters enhance their self-image, as well as their group status. Researchers have found that the more often a person thinks about aggression, the greater the chance for aggressive behavior to occur. Thus, after constant verbal denigration, haters progress to the next stage"
(The other stages go on to describe culmination of such herd hatred psychopathology into actual acts of physical violence).
It is only understandable then that editors and publishers of public forums choose to protect their authors and other readers from the immaturity, obscenity and personal attacks of such offenders. Bullies and hecklers never want any laws or rules that will help suppress their offensive behavior. Whoever said that thugs want patrol! They don't and will always vehemently use the "freedom of speech" dictum to forward their own agendas while insolently violating other people's right to a healthy discussion. Truth to be told, their offensive comments are far from being a true representation of "freedom of speech. They are only an illustration of how this privilege is abused on the internet under the convenient garb of anonymity and perceived legal immunity.
To expect an uncensored voice on a public forum of media is like eating one's cake and having it too. Demands for uncensored freedom of speech are loud and coherent only until the offense is being hurled right at you. Then the need for censorship immediately becomes very obvious and urgent.
Freedom Of Speech On The Internet
- » Published on September 09, 2007
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Author: Aditi Nadkarni
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