Peter Vinthagen Simpson argues that free speech is too important to be left to fend for itself in an online Wild West. "/> Peter Vinthagen Simpson argues that free speech is too important to be left to fend for itself in an online Wild West. " />


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

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.

Holding the hate at bay - defending free speech in the internet age
Photo: Wikimedia; Fredrik Persson/Scanpix

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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Norway to send 200,000 AstraZeneca doses to Sweden and Iceland

Norway, which has suspended the use of AstraZeneca's Covid vaccine until further notice, will send 216,000 doses to Sweden and Iceland at their request, the Norwegian health ministry said Thursday.

Norway to send 200,000 AstraZeneca doses to Sweden and Iceland
Empty vials of the AstraZeneca vaccine. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

“I’m happy that the vaccines we have in stock can be put to use even if the AstraZeneca vaccine has been paused in Norway,” Health Minister Bent Høie said in a statement.

The 216,000 doses, which are currently stored in Norwegian fridges, have to be used before their expiry dates in June and July.

Sweden will receive 200,000 shots and Iceland 16,000 under the expectation they will return the favour at some point. 

“If we do resume the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, we will get the doses back as soon as we ask,” Høie said.

Like neighbouring Denmark, Norway suspended the use of the AstraZeneca jab on March 11 in order to examine rare but potentially severe side effects, including blood clots.

Among the 134,000 AstraZeneca shots administered in Norway before the suspension, five cases of severe thrombosis, including three fatal ones, had been registered among relatively young people in otherwise good health. One other person died of a brain haemorrhage.

On April 15, Norway’s government ignored a recommendation from the Institute of Public Health to drop the AstraZeneca jab for good, saying it wanted more time to decide.

READ MORE: Norway delays final decision on withdrawal of AstraZeneca vaccine 

The government has therefore set up a committee of Norwegian and international experts tasked with studying all of the risks linked to the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which is also suspected of causing blood clots.

Both are both based on adenovirus vector technology. Denmark is the only European country to have dropped the AstraZeneca
vaccine from its vaccination campaign, and said on Tuesday it would “lend” 55,000 doses to the neighbouring German state of Schleswig-Holstein.