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Holding the hate at bay - defending free speech in the internet age

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Holding the hate at bay - defending free speech in the internet age
Photo: Wikimedia; Fredrik Persson/Scanpix
10:13 CEST+02:00
As Swedish news outlets reassess their policies regarding online comments amid an ongoing debate about "internet hate", The Local's Peter Vinthagen Simpson argues that free speech is too important to be left to fend for itself in an online Wild West.

Free speech is too important to be left to fend for itself in an online Wild West is one of the conclusions to emerge in Sweden from the Norway terror attacks which left 77 dead at the hands of a man fed on the language of "internet hate".

On winning an Oscar in 2003 US documentary film maker Michael Moore held a notorious speech in which he spoke of living in "fictitious times", criticising his "fictitious president" for taking the nation to a war in Iraq on false pretences.

Moore swiftly became the most hated man in America, the official video of the speech was pulled shortly afterwards and firebrand US television personality Glenn Beck used his show to air his thoughts about killing Moore, contemplating openly whether he should do the job himself or hire a hit man.

Glenn Beck escaped censure for his comments and according to Moore's recent memoir, the episode was just one salvo in a long, and at times acutely life-threatening, decade for him and his family.

Michael Moore remains alive, thanks in no small measure to the 24/7 watch of a team of ex-Navy SEALs, as does the discussion over what is acceptable to say in public under the auspices of “freedom of speech”. Moore said in a recent interview that his use of these freedoms to make his Oscar speech was not worth the price.

After the recent terror attacks perpetrated in Norway, some of these same issues have come under renewed scrutiny in Sweden.

One of the key issues to emerge from the atrocities is the “debate about the debate”.

One angle of this debate has been a discussion over whether a normalisation of “extreme” viewpoints in the post 9/11 internet media age has in some way contributed to facilitating the attacks in Oslo and Utøya.

Few would have held Beck responsible had Moore been taken out by a deranged fan, just as few held right-wing nationalist groups directly culpable for the attacks in Norway carried out in their names by Anders Behring Breivik.

But the connection has been repeatedly drawn between the climate of hate despoiling the comments sections of many internet forums, and the conditions required for pushing Breivik over the edge from vociferous hatred into violent action.

In response, several major Swedish news outlets recently announced reviews of their policies for reader interaction on their websites, airing plans to tighten conditions for commenting on articles.

Much of the focus has been on the issue of anonymity, and one major daily is set to integrate its login system with Facebook in order to make it harder for commentators to hide behind pseudonyms, a right denied to journalists and contributors.

A common theme of emails sent to The Local from disgruntled readers barred from commenting is that all restrictions represent a threat to the sanctity of freedom of speech.

One recent correspondent complained that it was unfair for him to be blocked because “almost everybody is offensive and violates the rights, harms or threatens the safety of other users”.

All media organisations, The Local included, enforce a code of practice to moderate open discussion and the recent initiatives should be seen as a development of this effort; as part of the fight to protect the free word, instead of meekly surrendering to what has become known as "internet hate".

Despite the evident challenges, a recent survey by polling firm Sifo shows that a vast majority of internet-savvy Swedes cherish the practice of being able to comment openly.

Newspaper editors, acutely aware that their content is often debated far more vigorously on social media forums, have recognised that they share a common interest in acceding to this wish and to ensuring that it thrives.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” - these famous words uttered by Voltaire remain as valid in the internet media age, despite the proposed changes and the complaints of an outraged minority in letters to the editor.

The Norway attacks have however highlighted that free speech needs protection if it is to continue to thrive in the face of the noisy, like Glenn Beck, and the murderous, like Anders Behring Breivik, who must not be left unchallenged to dictate the terms of the debate.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right for all individuals in a democratic society and must not, as in Moore's case, carry a price that is not worth paying. All participants must share in that responsibility.

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