Podcast 🎧 and blog: Freedom of expression in the digital age. A lost battle for truth?

17.11.2021 | Federico Plantera



In the title ‘Freedom of expression in the digital age. A lost battle for truth?’, we put the question mark to not sound too gloomy, or pessimistic. The battle for truth is inextricably tied to that for freedom of expression. But of course, with freedoms and their protection, always come responsibilities too.

The internet and social media platforms have made increasingly easy for potentially anyone to put out content and information. But the threats posed by the spread of misinformation and maliciously crafted news have proven to be a tangible menace to the stability of liberal democratic societies.

With Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, Senior Expert on Legal Framework at e-Governance Academy, we see that while drafting up new regulation might be an alluring option, we already got some tools to keep our information space healthy.


Gossip and news in a global village

The focus here does not lie on the alleged “loss of freedom of expression” often shouted by some conservative commentators. Rather, on where truth lies in an environment that is increasingly flooded by misinformation-cum-agenda. “Because we see the effects of it more and more. During the pandemic, with false information being spread very successfully. But also, in a general climate where it feels as if truth, verifying that something is true, is kind of losing in popularity,” Nyman-Metcalf points out.

Before the invention of the mechanical press by Guthenberg, information was sourced by people from other people, mostly in oral form. The possibility to create mass media and broadcast information widely came with the consciousness that we needed a system for checking what could be news and what was a fact.

“But now we’re back at the gossip stage, with the difference that the village is more global than ever before. Having trust in the information we get means a lot for societies. If we don’t trust it, such as in crisis situations in fact, then it’s very difficult for governments and authorities to get through with the actual, factual information,” Nyman-Metcalf says.


Three elements to consciously take in information

However, there is an interesting paradox. Segments of the usual audience of fake news and conspiracies would submit the information received from mass or traditional media to a very, very deep scrutiny. While instead, if other information is transmitted through so-called alternative media or sources, it could be more easily taken at face value.

In this oxymoron we can easily spot the relevance of trust as a key component in the battle for truth and freedom of expression – because yes, the two do overlap. At the moment, it seems we’re faced with three major elements that allow misinformation to spread more rapidly and effectively. We have addressed the technological side of things. To that, potentially add:

  • Weak digital literacy – in sourcing and screening information found online;
  • Confirmation bias – tendency to take in information that confirms the intuition or idea we already formed in our mind about a certain, perhaps divisive argument;
  • Lack of a critical look on information quality and sources that can be considered legit.

The feedback effects here can only reinforce the displacement media audiences are faced with, when approaching the mare magnum of information available online.


Sanctioning looks tempting, but what role for laws and companies?

When we talk about law and technology, there is always a kind of chicken-and-egg question coming up. What should come first between technology and regulation? How can we regulate something before we know how the technology would look like? But also, if we wait too long, then it’s like putting the genie back in the bottle.

Not to defend big companies, but it’s not like they started taking up the space against existing regulation. Simply, on this topic, there wasn’t any. “Are they the real actors who should intervene, by means of self-regulation? Traditionally, no. It’s good that they’re doing something, but there should be laws for it – like in traditional media,” Nyman-Metcalf continues.

Laws that do not punish per se, but that help set the framework in which companies and people in this space operate. If we say legislation cannot work, then it’s like giving up. “Instead, it could be crafted in the form of obligations for social media platforms, in terms of corporate responsibility. Outlining what the process, and not the content, could be towards making certain decisions,” Nyman-Metcalf concludes.

For the time being, we can at least keep hope alive. “These issues are now being talked about. Ten years ago, they were not really even on the table. So as long as we’re talking about them, we haven’t lost our battle.”