First came free speech. Then came the Internet. Then came the seemingly inevitable amalgamation of the two: free speech on the Internet. Free speech on the Internet is, unlike Schrodinger’s Cat, entirely alive. It is however, quite like Schrodinger’s Cat: it has two vastly different states of being, both of which exist at the same time.
The first one is the pleasant perspective; people sharing their thoughts in a positive manner and allowing productive discussion to ensue. This is part of what I aim to do with this blog – take advantage of the positive aspects of free speech on the web. I am able to use the freedom of speech I am fortunate to have to write my thoughts, and other people use their freedom of speech to respond with their own thoughts.
It is a basic premise but recently it has become evident that the negative side of free speech online is prevalent, too. Recently, the website Reddit has been making headlines for its user outrages after the termination of a “beloved moderator” sparked long-brewed tensions. The National Post wrote about former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s severe “trolling” and personal attacks, and addressed the not-so-pleasant side of free speech on the web.
“This is not just about Reddit. Every organization that hosts discussions online — the National Post among them — struggles with this issue: How best to support free speech and the spirit of debate while acknowledging that unfettered expression can devolve into a mob that actually strangles intelligent discussion.”
The article goes on to point out that comment threads can become so downright nasty that people who have something positive or insightful to say will simply avoid commenting in the first place. It goes on to call it “a vicious cycle” and “the crisis of the Internet today”.
Both on the Internet and in real life, people will often respond to being chastised for a rude remark with a statement like, “It’s a free country, I can say what I want!”
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms identifies “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” as a fundamental freedom. So, yes, it is a free country: people are entitled to say as they wish. And while there’s nothing specifically in the Charter about being a kind person, it is my belief that people are entitled to be treated courteously and with respect.
Free speech on the Internet is not just a problem because it creates clogged comment sections and threads: it can also lead to cyberbullying, which is a severe problem in itself. There are some ways to create meaningful and positive discussion spaces online, and there is also one uncomplicated guideline: be respectful of people while agreeing or disagreeing with their ideas.
What are your thoughts on this matter? Let me know in the comments!