Today, freedom of speech is under threat. In truth, the freedom to express one’s views has never been either absolute or uncontested. Laws against insulting religion have been weaponised against free-thinkers since ancient times. Libel suits constantly pit activists and journalists against corporations, governments and their armies of lawyers throughout the liberal-democratic world. Terrorist campaigns, state-sponsored assassinations, sabotage, and blackmail have also been standard fare shaping the modern political agenda.
All these problems are well-known. Liberal-democratic society and its activist class are accustomed to these modes of oppression. Today, however, there are new threats which free speech advocates are struggling to combat or even conceptualise. These are: (a) the rise of social media and the Internet as tools of repression; (b) the newfound importance of authoritarian states to Western corporate interests; (c) the manipulation of liberal-democratic societies’ relative openness by authoritarian regimes seeking to undermine them; and (d) the increasingly long arm of those states and social movements wishing to punish those who speak against them. These issues combine to form a case for pessimism because liberal-democratic society is ideologically ill-equipped to deal with the threats it faces whilst remaining liberal in character.
Social media platforms, like the Internet more generally, were hailed at their conception as tools for freedom of speech and communication. In the early 2000s, an era of expanding Internet access for those living under authoritarian regimes, social media seemed a perfect tool to challenge oppression. China’s government realised this earlier than most and quickly moved to block social media platforms they could not control, but other authoritarian regimes were slower to act and paid the price. By early 2011, events of the Arab Spring had shown social media’s inherent power as a tool to focus grievances and organise challenges to some of the world’s worst regimes. It didn’t last. Authoritarianism has adapted.
There was a time when a tyrant had to physically monitor dissidents, capture them, then torture them to extract the names of associates. Today, one only has to read social media to understand a protest movement, its leaders, their views, their plans, and the number of potential followers. A tech savvy government finds modern activism’s increasing dependence on social media to be a useful vulnerability. Internet shutdowns are now commonplace events used by dictatorships to isolate and then arrest dissidents once they’ve come into the open on social media. Keyword searches and content blocking are carried to the level of high art by the Chinese censors, and their model is now exported to like-minded illiberal regimes around the world with great success.
This ability of dictators to directly attack dissidents is the least subtle tool in the regime’s playbook. A more insidious tool is using official social media formats like China’s WeChat or Weibo to steer agendas and create an environment of self-censorship and anti-activism. In officially permitted Chinese outlets, a citizen must not only refuse to support anything the government deems taboo, they must also be seen to tow the party line, and do so with appropriate enthusiasm, lest their level of pro-government sentiment seem inadequate for future employment. The official introduction of a “social credits” scheme by the Chinese government, whereby people are rewarded or named and shamed for what were once private views, is only the final evolution of an inevitable abuse of technology.
Perhaps surprisingly, such ghastly developments in Internet censorships are not only grudgingly accepted by liberal-democratic governments, they are actively supported by some of its greatest corporations. Google dropped its strikingly simple motto of “Don’t be Evil” because they were quite willing to be evil and censor the Internet on China’s behalf. Why wouldn’t they? The Chinese market is now large, and Chinese money is as good as anyone else’s. The price paid in dead dissidents doesn’t appear in Google’s balance sheet. Nor did Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have any qualms about chasing the Chinese market at the cost freedom of speech, for arrests of activists aren’t accounting abstractions. Market share is.
Internet giants are not alone in pursuing dictatorship dollars at the cost of valueless voices. Universities in the West routinely accept tens of millions in donations from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Libya to build Islamic centres, and from China to build Confucian Institutes. It defies belief that this money is given without the expectation of influence, and that influence is often laid bare when dissidents are censored by the universities themselves. Speaking events are carefully vetted, discussed, and managed by universities and their financiers, as are hiring practices and academic appointments. Confucian Institutes have become bold enough not to bother concealing their hatred of Tibetan activists, Falun Gong, and Uighurs, and it is hard to find a university that will host a critic of Islam or Islamism.
Liberal-democratic societies tend to consider openness to be both a virtue and a strength. The weaknesses are neither understood nor easily addressed. The openness of our universities allows patriotic foreign students from illiberal states to monitor and report on their more liberal peers. Lecturers who broach the wrong topics are registered and denied visas for field work or access to resources in adversarial regimes. Our social media allows dictatorships to argue their case online to liberal audiences, whilst silencing their domestic dissenters and censoring foreign content. Dictators are easily able to block the BBC or CNN but still have their voices uncritically disseminated by those same organisations. When our major news outlets or their journalists are blocked in China, Saudi Arabia, or other dictatorships, the response is the same. We maintain openness to their messages whilst they distort or eliminate ours.
Liberal-democratic openness and the rise of new technologies have also lengthened the long arm of repression. China now sends text messages to overseas Uighurs to remind them that the Party is watching and that they have vulnerable families at home. A person’s dependence on technology allows cyberattacks to ruin their lives should they transgress against dictators. The same applies to corporations (Sony’s hack by North Korea being a notable example). Islamist parties operate freely in the West, even if they advocate the destruction of democracy, and the threat of assassination silences secular bloggers and liberal publishers alike with alarming ease.
Given the tepid responses of liberal-democratic states, corporations, and civil society to these modern challenges, the case for pessimism is overwhelming. Not only has liberal-democratic society failed to uphold free speech, it seems to have forgotten what free speech means. Liberals have roundly applauded bans on “White nationalism” from Facebook in the aftermath of the recent Christchurch massacre, yet Black nationalism, Islamism, Chinese nationalism, Russian nationalism, and virtually every dictatorship on the planet have their social media accounts intact and unthreatened. Campus protests by mostly left-wing students routinely drive off speakers, and conflicts over free speech on campus has led to small, designated areas for free speech and, therefore, created larger areas where it is implicitly or explicitly banned. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, dictatorships lined up alongside many so-called liberals to push for limits on freedom of speech, to control cartoons rather than protect cartoonists. Even such liberal media outlets as the Huffington Post were more than happy to allow the Chinese ambassador to explain exactly why you can’t let people say what they want to say, and all too many liberals took too little notice when the UN Human Rights Council began passing resolutions which made religious defamation a crime against humanity.
Should demographic and economic trends continue, the next few decades will see the larger share of the world’s population and economy fall under the control of authoritarian regimes. Censorship will be normalised. The pressure on our own freedoms will increase. Solutions are unlikely to be found within liberalism itself, for liberalism cannot be insular, nor can it be aggressive in the defence of its own values. A muscular liberalism is no longer liberal, and many of what used to be liberalism’s best defenders are now turning against it. Hence, it was with muted horror but no surprise that I received Mark Zuckerberg’s recent cry to government for increased policing of the Internet. With the Islamists, the Chinese, the Russians, our own governments, and now the corporate giants of the digital commons agreed in principle that free speech is bad, all that’s left is to haggle out the price.
Fear not, however, for that price only need be paid by those with something to say, who speak on behalf of others, whose words are unwanted by someone powerful enough to stop them, or who violate the sacred norms of debate as defined by unelected autocrats, bureaucrats, or technocrats. As this doesn’t describe most people, it will be an uneventful slide to tyranny, and when the censors finally shut off the lights in freedom’s house, the noise outside may very well be liberals applauding the lack of cause for discord. If only we had silenced ourselves earlier.
Dr Simon Leitch is a former lecturer in international politics. He earned his PhD at Griffith University, where his thesis focused on China’s use of political rhetoric in the post-Cold War era. He was an editor for international affairs at Alochonaa.com and resides in Brisbane, Australia.