For a democratic system to work, it is necessary to have an electorate that is informed – with no constraints on the free flow of ideas or information. Democracy will not be trustworthy or sustainable if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. Democratic states need to be as open as possible, so people can hear a wide variety of viewpoints instead of monopolistic indoctrination. (Image source: iStock)
"Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?" The entrepreneur Elon Musk asked in a Twitter poll on March 25, 2022. The answer was 70% no, 30% yes.
On April 25, 2022, Musk struck a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion, reportedly to build "arena for free speech". He has described himself as a free speech absolutist and has thankfully sparked a wider public discussion about free speech in a democracy. There are instances -- such as child-pornography, falsely "shouting fire in a crowded theater," or, to safeguard national security during a war (see Brandenburg v. Ohio for some of the legal reasoning) -- where there are and need to be constraints on free speech. Regarding false information, such as propaganda, Australian writer Caitlin Johnstone cautions against turning a free society into some kind of totalitarianism to fight an adversary:
"How much are we as a society willing to give up for the US government and its allies to win a propaganda war against Putin?... Are we willing to commit to being a civilization for which the primary consideration with any piece of data is not whether or not it's true, but whether it helps undermine Russia?..."
The Czech Republic will be holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union from July 1 to December 31, 2022. It currently looks as if it will not only follow up on crucial economic and security issues from its previous presidency in 2009, such as the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis, but also on drawing a line between censorship and the fight against fake news and disinformation.
This issue arose not only because of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine also because of a report from February 8, 2022 by the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation. Among other things, it:
"... Calls on the Commission to set up a Commission taskforce led by Věra Jourová, as Vice-President of the Commission for Values and Transparency, dedicated to scrutinising existing legislation and policies to identify gaps that could be exploited by malicious actors, and urges the Commission to close these gaps..."
In 2018, a Code of Principles was created for online platforms, advertisers and other key players to commit to reducing misinformation and improving their online anti-misinformation strategies. On May 26, 2021, the Czech Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, said:
"The new code against disinformation fully preserves freedom of speech. We will not judge content, but we will focus on the tools used to spread disinformation and on empowering social media users to verify and control what they see and who paid for it."
The possible redefinition of where this line is drawn may be even more crucial for the future of the EU than economic issues. The question will be to what extent the EU's new code against disinformation will be in line with, for example, the statement of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Alexander Meiklejohn (1872-1964):
"Public discussions of public issues, together with the spreading of information and opinion bearing on those issues, must have a freedom unabridged by our agents. Though they govern us, we, in a deeper sense, govern them. Over our governing, they have no power. Over their governing we have sovereign power."
For a democratic system to work, it is necessary to have an electorate that is informed -- with no constraints on the free flow of ideas or information. Democracy will not be trustworthy or sustainable if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. Otherwise there is a very real probability of ending up with a repressive, autocratic government such as Castro's Cuba, Chávez and Maduro's Venezuela, Putin's Russia, Xi's China, Kim Jung-un's North Korea or Khamenei's Iran.
The desire to manipulate opinion can stem from seeking to benefit society, or, as we have too often seen, only to benefit oneself -- politically, economically, for a promotion in one's career, or all of the above. Choosing manipulation, however, kills democracy.
Meiklejohn argued that voters need to be free to engage in uninhibited discussion and debate to make informed choices about their self-government. Free speech, therefore, produces informed voters -- which individuals who possibly prefer a rigged result might not want.
In 2009, the Czech government collapsed during its EU presidency. The repetition of this event was brought closer by two events, oddly connected to Russia's current invasion of Ukraine:
1) Supreme State Attorney Igor Stříž of the Czech Republic announced that his country was moving to criminalize speech supporting Russia, with sentences of up to three years. The proposal, widely criticized, was probably best summarized by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley:
"...Ironically, there is no need to arrest the minority of voices supporting Putin or his war. Yet, people want the satisfaction of arresting those with opposing views. They are wrong. They degrade themselves, their country, and this cause with such anti-free speech measures."
2) The Czech government has caused selected websites to be shut down -- including opinion-only opposition websites -- and now no one from the government wants to take responsibility -- they know that they were wrong. There seems to have been the non-transparent cooperation of private companies, a few members of the government and public officials – all with unknown levels of responsibility. The closures drew criticism from journalists, conservative supporters, Czech patriots and supporters of direct democracy, lawyers, and NGOs such as the Society for the Protection of Freedom of Expression. The lawyer and chairman of the liberal opposition parliamentary party Freedomites, Libor Vondráček, told independent XTV on March 4:
"...it's censorship... if we were in a state of war that had been declared, or at least a state of danger to our country, and the courts got involved at least through some sort of interim measure, we could talk about it being within the law..."
In general, censorship -- both at the national and European levels -- seems to emerge from three areas:
- The impact of "Big Tech" with its non-transparent algorithms in the digital environment;
- Decisions by politicians;
- Procedural actions by public officials.
As early as 1991, David Ronfelt, in "Cyberocracy, Cyberspace and Cyberology: Political Effects of the Information Revolution," described how a cyberocracy can affect those who govern and why.
In countries where democracy has deep roots, the information revolution can provide ordinary citizens with new tools and opportunities to exercise their freedoms, improve their way of life, make political decisions and protect their personal interests.
Elsewhere, however, the tools of a cyberocracy can provide the state apparatus and its rulers with new and effective means of controlling their citizenry, and with an official ideology that determines what information is allowed. The main threats to privacy and freedom, then, not only come from government agencies but from corporations that collect vast amounts of demographic data, including credit, and other types of personal information that can be used for marketing, public relations, and purposes possibly less benign. We are already seeing this form of repression in the Chinese Communist Party's "social credit system", in which the state, through detailed personal data on every citizen, determines, based on obedience to its dogma, who may go to a good school, get a job of his choosing, take a plane -- or be sent away for incarceration or even "disappeared."
The Czech cyberneticist Dr. Ivan M. Havel – who received computer science doctorate from the University of California, Berkley in 1971 and was a brother of the former Czech President Václav Havel -- in 1999 wrote an article, "The Advent of Cyberculture" about the self-organization of the European "Information Society" through communication networks:
"...There are all the users sitting at their terminals, enjoying interesting messages and entering their own messages. An obvious concern arises that anybody could enter non-verified, false, immoral, or dangerous information. This concern has to be taken seriously.... Our fantasies may look exaggerated to some but they may soon be part of the everyday world around us..."
An Israeli bestselling author, Yuval Noah Harari, who warned of the rise of digital dictatorship in a lecture at the Davos World Economic Forum in January 2020, had already, in October 2018, stated in an article, "Why Technology Favors Tyranny":
"... The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century... Remember that the Internet, too, was hyped in its early days as a libertarian panacea that would free people from all centralized systems—but is now poised to make centralized authority more powerful than ever..."
Czech video game developer and entrepreneur Daniel Vávra also warned, on September 17, 2020, against non-transparent algorithms:
"The system is opaque, it has its own political agenda... One day, for example, Facebook will remind half of the people to go to the polls and tell the other less popular half to have a fry-up. In this case, it has the ability to significantly influence the election."
In 2021, Vávra founded the Society for the Protection of Freedom of Expression (SOSP). Its mission is promoting freedom of speech as a basic condition of democracy; collecting cases of censorship on social networks, and preventing new forms of censorship on social networks, which are becoming the main public forums for political discussion. SOSP has gained the support of MPs, senators, MEPs and mayors from six Czech parliamentary parties. On June 10, 2021, SOSP held a seminar in the Czech Chamber of Deputies.
Leading representatives of SOSP include, in addition to Vávra, Marian Kechlibar, a commentator and mathematician, and Gabriela Sedláčková, moderator and co-founder of the independent V.O.X. TV. Supporters include Martina Kociánová, a former television news presenter who now has her own independent talk show, Radio Universum, and collaborates with the Equilibrium Institute, a group that "inform[s] the professional and lay public in a timely and correct manner about emerging trends in society, technology and the environment".
Vávra, incidentally, is not only the creator of a successful Czech game, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, in 2002, but also the most expensive Czech game, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, in 2018. Kingdom Come raised £1,106,371 on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, but also criticism from "woke" progressives who criticized the game's lack of diversity. Vávra, despite pressure, did not bow to the request to include historical fabrications in the game; later the game was used as teaching material in schools.
Another objective of SOSP is to "watch the watchers" -- to verify the verdicts of the so-called fact-checkers -- who all too often, evidently, are self-appointed, wrong and woefully subjective.
SOSP, in November 2021, also distributed a petition, signed by more than 30,000 people, including MPs across the Czech political spectrum, aimed at setting rules on social networks that are truly transparent.
The activities of SOSP, therefore, at least in the Czech Republic and the EU, will soon help to draw a line between "censorship by the digital dictatorship" on one side, and "fighting fake news in civilization based on truth", on the other side.
Where totalitarian societies are restricted -- for instance, by enforcing censorship based on alleged blasphemy -- then democratic states need to be even more open -- as open as possible -- to provide an alternative to them, so people can hear a wide variety of viewpoints instead of monopolistic indoctrination.
As Karl R. Popper argued:
"The true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince; all the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He seeks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions."