Freedom of expression is better protected in democratic systems than in authoritarian systems. Nonetheless, public discourse tends to be severely distorted, even in high-income countries with liberal constitutions. Poor and marginalized people are usually left speechless.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of any decent social order. To deprive human beings of free expression is to keep them in an animal condition. They are deprived of the communication they need to take charge of their destiny, whether individually or collectively.
Throughout history, oppressed social groups have not had the right to speak their minds nor received the education that would have allowed them to do so forcefully. The prison of silence was not eternal, of course. Slaves, plebeians, serfs, members of the lower castes, proletarians, colonial subjects: again and again the oppressed rose up to claim their rights. No oppressive order lasts forever; revolutions are coming.
Freedom of expression ultimately depends on the full recognition by all members of society of the equality of one another. As a result, the basic reality often deviates considerably from well-formulated constitutional principles. Let’s not forget that in the 19th century, the United States was called a “republic” and not a democracy, while the British Empire was ruled by an “elective aristocracy”. Both officially proclaimed freedom of speech, but slavery was not abolished in the United States until 1865, while Britain colonized territories around the world and deprived the working class of his right to vote.
“Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter,” said German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871 – 1919). She did not approve of hatemongers and manipulators, but thought of those who dared to speak truth to power, voicing the needs of the willing. His argument was that freedom of expression should serve the weak. Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet, said it this way: “My mouth will be the mouth of the unfortunate who have no mouth.
Oust the dissidents
Clearly, freedom of expression is better protected in democratic systems than in authoritarian systems. Despotic rulers are prone to harass, stalk and even kill journalists and others who dare to criticize them. However, there are also serious problems in liberal democracies. Rather than silence dissenters, they tend to oust them. It is obvious that what is now called “public relations” or “PR” for short, was once called “propaganda”.
Indeed, Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry, published a book called “Propaganda” in 1928. In it he stated that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important democratic society.” According to the book, “we are governed, our minds shaped, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
In other words, people’s consent is actively engineered by those in power, especially through the media system. Government agencies are involved, but also the public relations departments of private sector companies and organized interest groups.
It is also important that market dynamics emphasize the views of influential elites. Large corporations own television stations, radio stations and newspapers. Dependence on advertising also shapes the editorial policies of media houses. Increasingly, public broadcasters also depend on advertising, but conservative forces are questioning their credibility in many countries. The most striking current example is of course that of the BBC.
In summary, the space for freedom of expression has always been restricted. It is now decreasing and the content is getting poorer.
Impasse: social media
For a time, it seemed that the rapid development of social networks had opened up a more democratic public space. Today, no one talks about the so-called “Facebook revolutions” anymore, as was common during the Arab Spring in 2011. The background is that the most important social media platforms are owned by multinational corporations that prioritize profits at the expense of public discourse. They claim to only give people what they want, but impenetrable algorithms ensure that not all voices are equal. Information that could harm Facebook, for example, is unlikely to spread widely on Facebook. Additionally, managers avoid political controversy, but want to be liked by those who can pay the most for publicity. This includes governments and large corporations.
Equally disturbing, of course, is that social media platforms are being used to spread lies. Conspiracy theories that serve right-wing demagogues feature prominently. It is no coincidence that they often discredit state action. “Freedom” is declared against the decision-making of elected governments, for example in relation to climate mitigation, the public response to Covid-19 or publicly funded social protection systems. This narrative suits the super-rich elites who don’t depend on public services, but hurt masses of people who need them. It undermines constitutional democracy, but reinforces existing social hierarchies.
So far, platforms such as Facebook or Twitter remain opaque about what exactly they do to control opinions. He made headlines when they banned former US President Donald Trump in early 2021 after the US Capitol uprising. The big question was whether this amounted to censorship. The legal answer is no, because censorship means that a government institution decides that someone cannot speak. In this sense, private sector companies cannot exercise censorship.
Other issues have received less attention:
- Should social media platforms with near-monopoly reach be allowed to simply maximize profits or should they be regulated in a way that serves the public interest?
- Shouldn’t social media platforms be held accountable for content like publishers are? After all, their algorithms determine what people see on their screens.
- To what extent do tech giants’ algorithms amplify views they like and dampen those they dislike?
Elizabeth Warren, the left-leaning U.S. senator, isn’t deprived of her social media presence, but corporate algorithms certainly aren’t bolstering her demands for disruption or at least strict regulation of internet giants. Would Warren have over 3.3 million Facebook followers if she promoted the tech giants’ interest? We do not know; the algorithm is secret.
We do know, however, that the mainstream media generally sides with investors. Senior executives generally enjoy more favorable coverage than union leaders. Reports of right-wing extremists in the security forces rarely make the news, while even non-violent leftists are labeled as dangerous. However, media laws normally prevent newspapers and broadcasters from spreading outright lies. Public discourse would benefit from social media platforms being held accountable in the same way (see Emmalyn Liwag Kotte at www.dandc.eu).
The “fact-checking” industry that has emerged cannot solve the fundamental problems. Typically, fact checkers are employed by mainstream media outlets and serve their needs. All relevant topics are unverified. Issues that primarily concern developing countries do not receive the same attention. Also, social media giants are not known to scrutinize content in languages other than English. In addition, many problems are too complex for binary “true” or “false” questioning. Finally, fact checkers sometimes face conflicts of interest, especially when the business models of their payers are at stake.
The fate of whistleblowers
Liberal democracies don’t typically suppress dissent the way authoritarian regimes do, but whistleblowers can face challenges. An example is the US’s treatment of Edward Snowden who revealed information about secret intelligence service practices. It was of great public interest, but he now had to live in exile in Russia. Moreover, in many places, the law does not sufficiently protect whistleblowers who disclose malpractice. However, the main way dissent is kept at bay is for the mainstream media to drown it in a flood of other stories.
Things are particularly frustrating in less developed countries. In West Africa, for example, elite discourse relies on English and French, although masses of people speak only African languages. To compound the problems, not all African journalists are professionally trained. Private media companies generally depend on government advertising – and the same governments run public broadcasting institutions. To some extent, people read the websites of major outlets of their former colonial power.
Although these outlets cover African affairs to some extent, they do not deal in depth with national politics and generally do not look beyond the capital. Worryingly, they pay little attention to the harm Western governments, corporations and soldiers are doing in Africa. The French media, for example, tends not to mention – or even question – the enduring support that successive French governments have given to some of Africa’s most odious regimes. Let us quote for example Chad under Idriss Déby or Burkina Faso under Blaise Compaoré.
Ndongo Samba Sylla is head of research and program for the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. He is based in Dakar.
Hans Dembowski is editor-in-chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.