The internet may have been founded on the principles of egalitarianism and democracy, but the future of free speech on the web looks bleak, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.
As evidence, Pew researchers cited numerous events and stories from the past year, including a story about Facebook employees suppressing conservative news, the online harassment of Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones, the explosion of fake news, and #Pizzagate. Today, not even memes are safe.
The report authors surveyed more than 1,500 tech experts, experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders and ask for their opinions about where free speech on the internet is headed.
The comments are parsed into four themes based on the respondents’ answers: things will stay bad because to troll is human; things will stay bad because there are economic and political incentives that support trolling; things will get better because the internet will splinter into controlled social zones; and that proposed solutions come with a cost because surveillance and the regulation of speech will rise.
Not really, said Lee Rainie, director of internet, science and technology research at Pew Research Center.
“You can just walk back the past couple of years and see the rise in urgency with which people who care about the internet care about these questions,” he said. “The tech community is grappling with the question of how do we make sure the online environment is hospitable to people, but in a way that doesn’t cripple free speech. These are issues we’ve been caring about for awhile.”
Trolls Will Be Trolls
John Cato, a software engineer, said the trolling has been an internet “tradition” since the early days of the internet.
“Some services may be able to mitigate the problem slightly by forcing people to use their real identities, but wherever you have anonymity you will have people who are there just to make other people angry,” he said.
Google Vice President Vint Cerf compared bad online behavior to mob behavior. Internet users make unsupported claims or accusations and align themselves with others who think similarly.
“Bad behavior is somehow condoned because ‘everyone’ is doing it,” he said. “It is hard to see where this phenomenon may be heading.”
One respondent, who chose not to be identified, said trolls know their behavior is effective and typically results in no punishment.
“If Gamergate can harass and dox any woman with an opinion and experience no punishment as a result, how can things get better?” the respondent wrote.
Segmented, Controlled Social Zones
Several survey participants wrote that artificial intelligence will be able to help filter out inappropriate behavior.
Stowe Boyd, a chief researcher at GigaOm, said that free speech will remain possible, though “AI filtering will make a major dent on how views are expressed, and hate speech will be blocked.”
Valerie Bock, of VCB Consulting, said requiring users to post under their real names in online forums will help prevent bad behavior. There will be free-for-all spaces and well as “walled gardens,” she said.
The Rise of Surveillance
Several experts expressed concerned that efforts to combat online harassment could result in increased surveillance and censorship by governments and big businesses.
“Surveillance and censorship will become more systematic, even in supposedly free countries such as the U.S. Terrorism and harassment by trolls will be presented as the excuses, but the effect will be dangerous for democracy,” Richard Stallman, a software freedom activist, said in his response.
Rebecca MacKinnon, director of Ranking Digital Rights at New America, said she is concerned about the future of free speech, but believes that if solutions do come about, they will be “human/social/political/cultural and not technical.”
Significance for the News Industry
Journalists are likely at the forefront in trying to understand this new environment, Rainie said. The news industry is struggling with professional norms that have been in place for more than a century.
“The news business is bound with civic government and political culture,” he said. “The ways these news issues are resolved has enormous impact on public life these days.”
Rainie pointed out that before the internet, the leaders of journalistic organizations likely would have worked together to grapple with problems that affected the industry – but now, everyone can be a publisher or broadcaster.
“There are big fundamental issues that are now basically up for grabs, starting with what is truth?” Rainie said. “What is news? How do you make money? How do you create a useful and profitable enterprise in this very new media ecosystem? How do you defend yourself against people who accuse you of being fake news?”
Bianca Fortis is the associate editor at MediaShift, a founding member of the Transborder Media storytelling collective and a social media consultant. Follow her on Twitter @biancafortis.