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Internet free speech: We’re doing it wrong

When you ask the kind of geeks who sit around pondering the value of our connected digital world what makes the Internet so great, one answer always pops up: Openness and free speech. Just look at how much access we have to the world’s information, they say. Look at how free speech has thrived and spread throughout most of the globe. The Arab Spring! Occupy Wall Street! “Breaking Bad” episode recaps! And I agree, all those are great examples of the way the Internet has made life better for countless people. But there is a sad fact about our newfound ability to disseminate whatever we want, anytime we want: We just aren’t very good at it. 

The most poignant recent example of this comes from the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy, who took a deep dive into the Web’s role in the case of Steubenville, Ohio, football players, two of whom were found guilty earlier this year of raping an intoxicated teenage girl from West Virginia.

Our collective online behavior in cases like Steubenville and Boston could eventually have negative effects on the amazing gift of broad free speech online.

Levy’s excellent reporting will undoubtedly evoke sickening outrage at those who were responsible for violating a young girl. But it does something else, too: It shows just what happens when we, the couched commentators of the Web, try to take matters into our own hands – often acting on bad information. 

This excerpt from the long-read piece highlights the problem:

In trying to determine what happened in Steubenville, the police and the public began with the same information, gathered from the same online sources: ugly tweets, the Instagram photograph, and a deeply disturbing video. But while the police commandeered phones, interviewed witnesses, and collected physical evidence from the crime scene, readers online relied on collaborative deduction. The story they produced felt archetypally right. The “hacktivists” of Anonymous were modern-day Peter Parkers—computer nerds who put on a costume and were transformed into superhero vigilantes. The girl from West Virginia stood in for every one of the world’s female victims: nameless, faceless, stripped of identity or agency. And there was a satisfying villain. Teen-age boys who play football in Steubenville—among many other places—are aggrandized and often do end up with a sense of thuggish entitlement.

In versions of the story that spread online, the girl was lured to the party and then drugged. While she was delirious, she was transported in the trunk of a car, and then a gang of football players raped her over and over again and urinated on her body while her peers watched, transfixed. The town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime. If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.

That’s right – none of that is true. And yet, in the real-time frenzy of Twitter, Facebook, and blog comment sections, we have a culture in which the nitty-gritty truth does not matter, as long as the overall narrative of any given story is right. And from that flimsy platform, we spring forward with threatening or derogatory words directed at whomever we believe are the villains.

This blind beast of online fury reared its ugly head in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Reddit and Twitter users mistakenly identified Sunil Tripathi, a Boston-area college student who had been missing for a month, as one of the possible terrorists.

Law enforcement authorities quickly cleared Tripathi’s name. But, as The New York Times recently reported, it was not nearly quick enough to spare the Tripathi family from the wrath of the Web. Not long after the bombing, Sunli Tripathi’s body was pulled from a river. 

In the real-time frenzy of Twitter, Facebook, and blog comment sections, we have a culture in which the nitty-gritty truth does not matter, as long as the overall narrative of any given story is right.

Most recently, we saw our misuse of the Internet’s quick and dirty communication tools used to threaten the life of Dave Vonderhaar, design director of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, over a minor game update that had little impact on the game.

These are just a few notable, high-profile examples of how our use of free speech online has become tainted by a desire to be part of events or conversations for which we have little value to add. Twitter and Facebook are littered with garbage comments and unjustified vitriol. Reddit is a cesspool of flash judgments about people or events, by users who think they know what’s right and what’s wrong better than anyone else.

None of this is to say people aren’t entitled to their opinion, or should keep their thoughts to themselves. Nor am I saying that the Web isn’t equally filled with good vibes and positivity – there is just as much of that as there is hateful ignorance and cruelty. But it seems as though the bad stuff has begun to float further towards the top.

What I am trying to say is that our collective online behavior in cases like Steubenville and Boston could eventually have negative effects on the amazing gift of broad free speech online.

First, the spewing of gut reactions to events degrades the value of our collective discourse to the point where what’s being said online contributes little to the overall conversation. If half of the tweets out there are filled with meanness and misinformation, we have taken a step backwards, not the other way around.

Second, our propensity to jump into real-life events with real-life consequences without a full comprehension of either, as exhibited during the Steubenville and Boston fiascos, could lead to less openness in the offline world. Police and government officials may be less willing to reveal information for fear of an online witch-hunt. And victims, like the victim from West Virginia, may be less willing to come forward about crimes committed against them due to the possibility that thousands of Web users will hound them with cruel messages or worse.

In short, as our use of the Web and social media continues to evolve, we must not lose sight of both the power that these tools have, and the possibility that our abuse of them could destroy what we love about them.

(Image via The Daily Beast, all rights reserved)