Among the most enduring cornerstones of America’s prosperity is the people’s right to free, uncensored speech. When our forefathers devised our Bill of Rights, they anticipated the chilling impact that outlawing speech would have on free and prosperous democracy. They saw the incarceration, execution and torture of millions who had dared to oppose their government and religious institutions in the thousand years prior. In an age of technology, where new ideas and new ways of thinking can touch the ends of the earth in an instant, the issue of whether a free and unfiltered dialogue can survive in our modern technological era remains open.
Unrestricted speech may be the principal marker of a free nation. After all, the marketplace of ideas is hypothesized to operate far more effectively than the rule of law on speech-related issues by eliminating the outlandish, absurd and dangerous, while elevating the rational — at least, that was the case in the past.
One of the core principles behind certain First Amendment protections is the notion that once a particular statement is made, there must be time for discourse to allow for the flourishing of ideas, otherwise known as “counterspeech.” For instance, as in the traditional Oliver Wendell Holmes scenario — don’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater — the panic that would ensue would leave little opportunity for people to consider whether there is indeed a fire, resulting in mass hysteria and a high probability of death and injury. Nowadays, this colloquial expression is readily applicable to social media, as one can proclaim any falsehood and instantly have it received and reacted to by someone on the other side of the world, without any time for counterspeech — nearly as fast as those patrons in the crowded theater.
Of course, while counterspeech is an effective method to encourage free expression, it is not without its faults, as those with more money or influence can effortlessly shut down opposing viewpoints. For example, social media “fact-checkers” and those with deep pockets and significant influence may easily influence the dialogue. However, though these parties may often be viewed as the main offenders to free speech, free speech has a more pernicious and destructive adversary: rapid information transmission.
With the rapid transmission of knowledge, the winner in the marketplace of ideas becomes the first mover or the most influential; whoever speaks first or has the loudest voice wins.
It is far easier to share, retweet or like something with a few clicks than it is to make a reasoned response that can effectively paralyze the other person’s viewpoint. This is especially true when considering the reach that some individuals have online, since millions of people who are already predisposed to agreeing with speakers are also the first to see and adopt their viewpoints.
Knowing this, it becomes clear that with the rapid advancement of technology, our nation’s adversaries may use our country’s free speech ideals to propagate misinformation and heinous notions that benefit them at the cost of our democracy. In recent years, new and powerful methods of deception have been developed and utilized by our adversaries both foreign and domestic. These include doctored photographs, deepfakes, videos with special effects and modified audio. These forms of deception are so persuasive and so challenging and time-consuming to refute that disseminating them is akin to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, as they can spread to everyone in an instant. Because video, photos and audio have often been seen as the pinnacle of evidence, embodying the unfiltered and unimpeachable truth, audiences will generally accept them at face value, absent of any clear abnormalities.
In many ways, free speech is paradoxical in that we are afforded the right to say what we please, with that same right concomitantly empowering us to express support for speech restrictions. In other words, someone may use their right of free speech to curtail it.
Regrettably, this is no hypothesis; it is a reality that is unfolding. Numerous individuals on all ends of the political spectrum have desired to limit speech and prohibit people from expressing their views. For instance, we see people on the left wishing to criminalize misgendering — as Canada has already done — or hate speech — as the United Kingdom has already done. These views easily gain prominence in the marketplace of ideas through the ease at which people can adopt speech.
Today, adopting speech as one’s own has become more straightforward than it used to be.
Prior to the advent of the internet, if someone authored a book, a paper, a leaflet or any other kind of written communication, a proponent of it would have needed to take on the same role of physically disseminating that speech in order to adopt it. Nowadays, that effort is entirely passive, with the only effort being to click a button to have one’s speech entangled with the wider conversation, instantaneously breeding a monster capable of devouring any counterspeech in its path.
As a result, ideas spread faster than they can be countered, and the ability of better ideas to gain prominence in the marketplace is effectively shut down before they are written.
Since so many people can rapidly adopt the same message as their own, publishing an opposing viewpoint is often met with a swift and unrelenting death by the thousands of people who have already adopted the first-mover view in the time it took to pen the opposition — often referred to as being “canceled” or “ratioed.” Sadly, given that social media platforms foster the creation of these monsters, they too can readily shift the dialogue by blocking out opposing ideas, thereby crippling any measures of resistance.
Democracy may very easily come to an end with the click of a button. As nearly everyone has the ability to freely disseminate their thoughts across the world and have them adopted by people everywhere, it is only a matter of time before our ability to engage in public discourse is eroded and the principles upon which our society is built crumble beneath our feet, as bad actors coordinate their efforts to spread harmful and reductive ideas.
There is no easy solution. Can we rely on unfettered free speech to eventually bring us to the ultimate truth? Or will the very ability to freely express ourselves on the internet enable bad actors to deceive us and steer us to our end? Whatever the solution, we have seen how swiftly the narrative can shift and how quickly harmful ideas can spread. We may never discover the answer, but the consequences are clear. Something must be done to save our republic.