Washington DC is full of national monuments with famous inscriptions going back to America’s founding, the Civil War, and the various 20th century wars. Among the most inspiring of them is a declaration in 10-inch silver letters honouring the Korean War: Freedom is not Free. These sixteen letters mean so much that they are best left to each human being’s own interpretation.
Nearly 70 years later, we’re in a different age altogether where we value our ability to express ourselves just as much as our ancestors fought to protect life, limb, property, and liberty. Everyone covets free speech. Citizen journalism is rampant. Anyone with a smartphone and internet access can post thoughts on social media for the world to see.
When everyone expresses an opinion, the laws of supply and demand kick in, making the value of each individual opinion practically worthless. But tools on major social media platforms — such as the Twitter hashtag — allow strangers to add to opinions already expressed on a topic. Numbers matter and a movement can be born.
Mahatma Gandhi would have loved to have Twitter in his time. The Arab Spring was the first movement entirely organised on Twitter. There was no leader for this movement, which spread from country to country, in a matter of months. In Cairo, someone tweeted that a bunch of protesters would meet at #TahrirSquare and within an hour, the tweet was retweeted, many with comments, millions of times all over the world. The world “viral” describes this rapid dissemination of information so well. The Hong Kong protests, too, are leaderless.
Dire societal costs
Governments are not entirely powerless when such public demonstrations occur. Police units are beholden to the basic principles of ensuring public safety, so they generally act in a restrained manner at first. But when things among the demonstrators go out of hand — a high possibility when there is no leader or there is no strategy — governments generally don’t know what to do. If authorities crack down on the demonstrations by force, they invite the ire of critics who say that free speech is being suppressed. If they don’t crack down, they’re indirectly inviting the demonstrators to push the envelope a little more. So free speech is not necessarily free. There are dire societal costs to government action or even inaction.
Governments have a much better chance to act before any demonstrations occur. Stifling dissent is the mantra of choice of authoritarian regimes and has proved extremely effective. Two modern examples can be found in Saudi Arabia and China. The idea is simple. Take the twitter opinionators — especially the loud ones — out of circulation. With no tweets flying around in the ether, demonstrations are far less likely. Problem solved.
A riveting must-see Frontline documentary — The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia — describes the extreme lengths to which the young prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has gone to control dissent. A long-form piece in Vanity Fair also provides many stories of actual individuals impacted by this approach.
A year after I wrote in these columns about the mysterious disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who was a fervent critic of the regime, the Kingdom now acknowledges that Saudi agents indeed killed him in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and that the perpetrators are on trial. In fact, in a dramatic admission, MBS himself goes so far as to say, “It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch. I really take it very seriously. I don’t want to tell you no, I didn’t do it, or I did it, or whatever. That’s just words.”
The frightening scenario
In China, a single tweet by the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, a popular NBA franchise, has created havoc in the league’s efforts to bring basketball to China. The tweet said, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” — a popular message in Hong Kong which the protesters have repeatedly used. Because it came from the official account of an NBA executive, China deemed this tweet as a direct hit at its sovereignty, trying to drive a wedge between it and Hong Kong.
The first casualty was when Chinese state television announced that it won’t be carrying two pre-season games live, a huge blow to the NBA, because China is one of the NBA’s largest foreign markets. The NBA commissioner has been at pains to toe a fine line — between capitulating to the Chinese while also defending the rights of American employees to express themselves.
Using either monopoly power, like China and Saudi Arabia are doing, or using the corporate power of boycotts, which many US companies routinely employ to cajole others to toe their line, are all equally frightening to free speech advocates.
Fallout of sharing one’s views
During the bathroom wars in the US state of North Carolina a few years ago, companies and sports leagues sought to apply pressure on a sovereign state to change policies regarding transgender use of public bathrooms. Fearful of an exodus, North Carolina voters narrowly defeated the incumbent party to bring about change. Liberals rejoiced that a victory was achieved, but that it was forced upon people through economic blackmail — and not through ballot advocacy — is never mentioned.
Expressing views publicly almost always has consequences. Admission offers at Harvard have been rescinded because of Facebook posts that did not meet Harvard’s standards. People have lost jobs because a public comment did not align with the values of their employers. And in extreme cases in authoritarian regimes, free expression urging action can result in severe punishment, including death. The most democratic institutions as well as the most repressive organisations all police what you say in public.
No matter where you live, free speech today is not really free.