War against the Truth

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of reach — where is the fine red line?

The last two months have proved that the information front is just as important as the military front, and that Europe, Bulgaria and the U.S. must limit the actions Russia is taking. This means that, in the coming months, we must carefully redefine what online freedom means and prevent it from being abused.

“If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution to the Jewish problem,’” Sacha Baron Cohen once said about social media. He called Facebook “the biggest propaganda machine in history.” If we have reached the point where a provocateur like Cohen is demanding stricter regulations of online content and drawing attention to the distribution of misinformation, then social media has already crossed the line.

When we raise children, we instill in them the main principle of freedom, which is that it comes with responsibilities and boundaries. If the world is like a teenager when it comes to how it uses the internet and social media, then it’s time to set clear rules.

If we don’t set these rules now, there is a risk that technology will slowly take down the liberal democracy we have been building for years, the same democracy that values human rights.

The pandemic has shown us that not only is the social contract at risk, but so is our health and livelihood. In Bulgaria, many COVID-19 victims could have been saved if it had not been for the dissemination of conspiracy theories and false information. The European parliament is currently discussing legislation to deal with digital services and prevent the spread of misinformation.

Malicious propaganda and distortion of information is nothing new. It has existed for centuries and was showcased in detail in Victor Klemperer’s book, “The Language of the Third Reich” (1947). The quick and easy access to billions of people and platforms is dangerous, and the negative effect is immediate. Will the average Englishman who falls victim to the Cambridge Analytica algorithm wake up one morning and decide to vote for Brexit, then regret it later, or will a Bulgarian believe Russian trolls that say the Ukrainian victims are actors? These are both results of the same phenomenon.

The pandemic and the war have highlighted serious problems with fast-paced information and the manipulation of the public. Experts have been warning us for years about the war on information and that Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes play an active role in it.

“There Is no liberal world order. Unless democracies defend themselves, the forces of autocracy will destroy them,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum.

How will we defend freedom of speech in democratic societies without the spread of false information? At the same time, how can we avoid having too many regulations that lead to censorship? The answer isn’t easy.

The important information that citizens use to make decisions about voting or whether to get vaccinated must be researched and analyzed in a way that is not emotional, something that is very difficult in a modern world filled with hasty sharing, “likes” and a viral culture.

The ability to record people’s behavior on social media is new. A person with ill intentions may know more about us than we do. Israeli historian Yuval Harari warns us about the way our weaknesses can be used to spread false information. If propaganda worked like a bomb in the past (providing the same result for everyone), today it works like a finely aimed arrow.

In this way, modern technology has destroyed one the most basic of human rights: the right to an opinion.

Even British philosopher John Stewart Mill, an avid defender of free speech in the 19th century, said that in order for there to be an exchange of ideas, people must adhere to common concepts and understandings. In the age of “alternative facts,” we can’t even agree that the earth is round.

In Madeleine Albright’s book, “Fascism: A Warning,” she alerted the world about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans and how he has been preparing to carry them out.

There is also such a thing as misunderstood responsibility for pluralism, especially in the Bulgarian media landscape. Zhanna Popova, a professor of television and radio journalism, notes there is no such thing as “different viewpoints” in a forum, “Not Just Words,” about hate speech. Sometimes journalists say they are presenting both perspectives, a practice that opens the door for populist rhetoric, hate speech and half-truths. Pluralism is important, but for it to exist, the viewpoints need to be properly defended, and there needs to be a fine line between opinion and fact.

The question is whether there are different points of view when, for example, it comes to unjustified aggression of one country against another. There needs to be a proper moral ground. Even strong defenders of free speech have said that Russia Today and Sputnik need to be banned because of the Russian propaganda the TV channels are broadcasting about the Ukrainian war. Other journalists have expressed concern that this will lead to further censorship. Not only has the EU banned broadcasts from these stations, it wants Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) to ban them from posting on their platforms in Europe. Not all social media networks react quickly.

Last week, The Guardian published an investigation that proved that the TikTok algorithm gave users access to propaganda and false information. The widespread allegations included the repeated but unproven charge that the United States operated biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.

Regulating Twitter will be more difficult if shareholders accept Elon Musk’s offer to buy the platform. The founder of Tesla wants to turn the social media platform into a “bastion” for free speech. Musk says that if he acquires Twitter, the platform won’t need to answer to shareholders and advertisers and won’t need to moderate offensive content. We hope that the European Union’s new legislative act, approved on March 25, will have some impact, as it promises more accountability and responsibility from big platforms for their actions and the risks that arise from what they post, such as misinformation.

In upcoming articles, we’re going to take an in-depth look at propaganda and fake news. We’re also going to interview the chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Krasimir Kanev, about freedom of expression, and talk with lawyer Amy Palmer of Facebook and Instagram’s oversight board.

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