We can’t have an honest discussion about free speech on the Internet without first understanding the incentive structure supporting our media ecosystem. Before just demonizing tech and media companies that are entangled in an endless and pernicious spiral of dependency on a harmful advertising model, we must realize we are part of the problem too. We are the consumers of information and we have the power of voting with our time and money for the kind of media landscape we want to promote.
I find myself empathizing with both sides of a very complicated debate between those who think that Big Tech and the Mainstream Media should censor voices arbitrarily and have the legal right to do so, and those who are afraid of what that could mean for our right to freedom of expression on an increasingly digitized world. I’m stuck in the middle of this conversation not so much because I’m unsure of where I stand, but because I think we’re having the wrong conversation in the first place.
My position is firm and clear when it comes to freedom of speech — I will defend it tooth and nail. But, unfortunately, the problem is not so simple. We have democratized and digitized the exchange of information through the Internet without creating a public realm for people to take part in that interchange. In other words, we’re stuck interacting on private property. You may be sitting in a public park or even in your own home, but your mind is not — it’s reading these words inside a private cyber-property that can restrict its access arbitrarily at any time.
The dilemma gets even more complicated when you think about the origins of most of these cyber-spaces. You see, during the honeymoon period of Social Media, tech companies were much more interested in luring more users to achieve exponential growth than attracting advertisers to be profitable. And they didn’t just want these users to sign up, they actually needed them to contribute content while also engaging with the contributions of others — It was a symbiotic relationship.
They made us believe that our Facebook profile was as much ours as any other physical object that we owned, like our computer or our car, when in fact, they owned it all. They offered their services for free and made it super easy for us to communicate with each other in a world which, as some of you may remember, used to charge a hefty price for the privilege of a simple international phone call. But we all signed the terms and conditions without reading them and now we have too much invested in these platforms to be able to leave them entirely. Our lives, our memories and our friendships are dependent on private companies controlled by a handful of people. So when they censor us by dictating what we’re allowed to say or not to say, it feels like they’re telling us to shut the hell up while we’re sitting right in our living rooms.
This mess gets even juicier. In the midst of this rapidly evolving media landscape, there was one big casualty that no one seemed to have considered at all: journalism. As people flocked to social media for free and fresh content, they left their trusted journalists behind. I think there is no bigger punishment for a journalist than being subjected to the torture of indifference. In response to these changes, journalism became desperate and toxic just to stay relevant, meanwhile, inflaming the public discourse and undermining its own credibility. Through it all, media companies became vulnerable and were acquired and consolidated by big telecommunications conglomerates that are less interested in presenting objective journalism than they are in promoting a social, cultural and political narrative that serves their business interests.
Big Media is fighting the influence of Big Tech by controlling the narrative rather than attempting to control the audience. Brilliant? Evil? Unintentional? — I don’t know. I’m not into conspiracies, that’s all I’d say about that.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question then becomes, how do we get out of this mess?
We must all be aware that the Legacy Media will try desperately to gasp for its last few breaths before decomposing in the merciless void of irrelevance, unfortunately, causing a lot of damage to the fabric of western society in its way down (as it clearly has for the past few years). Right in front of our eyes, the entire realm of journalism is being swallowed by ideological factions purposely battling each other for the mutual benefit of attracting more attention to the fight itself. Their intention is not to inform us but to exploit our inherent tribalism to generate the ratings they need to survive. Make no mistake, this will tear us apart. The solution is obvious but difficult to achieve in a world that has gotten used to free information: the people must start paying for good, objective and fair journalism.
If you want to kick’em in the teeth, pay for your information and fund the sources you trust the most. Startups such as Substack, where you get to subscribe directly to your journalist of choice, could be excellent alternatives to biased Legacy Media outlets that have become corrupted already. We have the choice of voting with our time and money — invest them wisely.
I also suggest diversifying your sources of information, both in format and origin — mix up your diet with video, audio and text, and make sure you include some liberal, conservative and independent ingredients in the recipe as well. The variety of formats will enrich a more well-rounded comprehension of the topics you consume and the diversity of sources will train your mind to be a better judge of the truth.
As for Big Tech and social media, we must incentivize competition. Anti-trust seems to be the best solution, but as consumers, we also have the means to contribute — diversify the digital tools you use and your sources of information. I’m encouraged to see that new companies like Duck Duck Go, Tik Tok, Parler and Signal are popping up to become an alternative to the giants of the web. I believe that any platform that discovers how to create a healthy ad model or a viable subscription model may be at the forefront of the new wave of social media that desperately needs to emerge. Also, I believe that to be truly successful, platforms will have to come up with a configuration that lets users be the proprietors of their own piece of cyberspace with all the rights and responsibilities that privilege entails. But until then, be the smart, conscious and responsible media consumer you know you should be — it’s the bare minimum you can do and, quite frankly, your main civic duty in this day and age.