Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Free Speech

Newspapers in Sweden recently announced they would be altering the comments sections of the websites to prohibit anonymous posting.  In an effort to combat hate speech in the wake of the Norway attacks that killed 77 people, posters will now have to log in through the newspaper websites or facebook before being allowed to post their comments to stories.  Not surprisingly, fiery debate exploded over the issue.

On one side, those supporting the decision to limit the comments to those who identify themselves suggest that removing the anonymity will provide a more authentic forum.  By removing the mask and asking their posters to own up to their comments, they believe intelligent debate will be rekindled and the hate speech and personal bashing currently found in the comments section will disappear.

On the other side, detractors of the decision deride the newspapers for trying to control debate and limit freedom on the internet.  They are suggesting that Swedish newspapers are heading in the direction of the many oppressive, authoritarian regimes the world has recently seen fall.  They worry that this so called stifling of free speech defies the reason for the internet and flies in the face of centuries of progressive social development.

I have found the debate interesting, seeing the merits of both sides’ arguments.  I appreciate the concept of free speech provided to me through the Bill of Rights and protected by our government and military.  On the other hand, I subscribe to the belief that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.  Too often, through the supposed anonymity of the internet, our backbone strengthens and we make statements we wouldn’t make in public with our identity exposed.  We feel strong, we feel righteous, we feel affirmed.

In reality, bringing someone down anonymously, hiding behind a tag, a handle, a username, shows that we are weak, afraid, and insecure.

In Sweden, the comments newspapers are working to prevent are primarily directed at Muslims, not related to the content of the articles, and full of hate.  They have no purpose other than to stir discontent among the disaffected looking for scapegoats.  In turn, hate grows, fertilized by misinformation and fear.

Sound familiar? 

Think Germany in the 1930s.  Had the internet been around, I can certainly imagine the Hitler Youth plugging away at the keyboard, filling the comments sections of newspapers the country over with hate speech.

Despite my love for free speech, I am completely behind the newspapers’ decision to limit the comments.  First of all, these are private enterprises, which don’t have to honor each individual’s right to speak.  Newspapers don’t publish every single letter to the editor submitted, do they?  Their content, despite existing under the label of news, is editorialized by a staff of people with a certain agenda.  We see this all the time in the US.  Compare the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and you will find extremely different perspectives and presentations of the same events.

Secondly, I believe the newspaper is a powerful tool for disseminating information.  I also strongly believe they have a social obligation to ensure their message is conveyed in a conscientious manner.  In this case, users who take advantage of the anonymous forum of newspaper comments to spread their hate and vitriol are abusing the newspaper’s purpose.

Finally, while I disagree with the messages the newspapers are attempting to combat, I respect the individual right to develop and harbor opinions.  Anyone who has a distasteful opinion of white, 30-something, writer/bassoonists is more than welcome to voice that opinion in the appropriate manner, in the proper forum.  I am proud to live in a country that protects that right for all people.

In Sweden, I am proud of the newspapers for their efforts to combat hate while still working to provide their readers forums in which their views can be shared, albeit no longer anonymously.  Perhaps the day will come when it is unnecessary to be scared to attach our name to comments simply because we lack confidence or worry about reprisal.  Maybe too, the day will come when we are able to disagree without letting hate or negativity enter into the discussion.

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