The following is a speech I was hoping to deliver this evening at a conference organised by ELSA (the local chapter of the European Law Students Association) discussing the topic of “Freedom of Expression Online” at the president’s palace. I had to cancel my participation in the conference when ELSA asked me to cut out parts of the speech for being “political”. It feels odd when one cannot speak freely in a conference on free speech.
How can we know if we’re truly free?
The concept is perhaps too abstract for a Platonic idea of freedom to be of any use. We instead bring the idea down to the empirical world and admit that ‘it’s all relative’. We’re ‘freer’ than the average North Korean. If our prime minister were to die, social norms would prevent most of us from celebrating in the streets. But we won’t all feel obliged to weep and wail in the squares like the unconvincing mourners at Kim Jong Il’s funeral.
Outside Broadcasting House in London there’s a larger than life statute of George Orwell and alongside it an inscription of a quote from him: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. So perhaps after all, expressing delight at the death of someone else’s political hero is indeed an indicator of political freedom.
The internet – or as we bombastically called it in a phrase that thankfully went out of fashion with florescent blue and pink clothing, ‘surfing the information super-highway’ – changed lives around the time I was your age. I took out my first internet subscription in 1994. It came with so much promise. You could write something and others would read it. That seems banal now but before 1994, unless you owned a TV station, a publishing house or a newspaper, for others to see what you wrote, a middleman (until then far less frequently a middle-woman) would decide whether what you said was worthy of dissemination.
It felt liberating to cut the middleman out and establish a mass distribution infrastructure for just about everyone. The brand name ‘You Tube’ for people like my children born after it took over the world lost its revolutionary streak. In 1968 Andy Warhol predicted that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. We’d be thankful now if we’re unknown for 15 minutes. Or at least some of us would be.
The online communications environment today is far from what we expected it to be in 1994 and it’s not all good.
Around the turn of this century blogs started to gain ground on the local scene. At the time they reflected the profile of the likelier internet user: middle class, university educated, male, technically savvy, geeky, perhaps slightly socially inhibited. Over the discussion boards they found an audience and the distance from the possible reaction of their interlocutors emboldened them to speak their mind in ways they’d never do in face to face interactions.
At the time someone you all know about – Daphne Caruana Galizia – took a dim view of the blogosphere (a word that thankfully has also gone out of fashion). She diagnosed the ‘echo chamber’ and the ‘thought bubble’ before we had words to describe those concepts. ‘You’re speaking to yourselves and each other. This is no grasp of reality. And in any case, you’re doing nothing to change it.’
Daphne grew out of conventional media but she had had a transformative effect on it. Today I should imagine most of you barely know your way around a newspaper. But when she started writing for one in 1988, Malta’s newspapers had not yet reached their peak.
Newspapers were dull. Local news was too unimportant to feature anywhere. There was no analysis to speak of. And the odd opinion column was anonymous. It may have been nameless but the columns reeked of stuffy, white-haired men.
When she started writing she transformed the Maltese newspaper column. She brought irreverence, empowerment, layered realism, and that emotional intelligence and earthy good sense that comes naturally to women and that men have tried to suppress out of public discourse for thousands of years.
There’s one way in which she changed the newspaper scene. Her writing was so distinctive, so fiery, so visceral, so smart that the old practice of publishing columns without a by-line had to be abolished. “Daphne on Sunday” was the first personally branded column. Others would try to follow in her wake.
Twenty-years later, by 2008, Maltese newspapers had become too small for her. She was tougher than any editor and her punches knocked harder than the whiplash her newspapers could sustain.
So, holding her nose and figuring it out as she went along, she joined the universe of the nerds and set up her own blog. Like “Daphne on Sunday” two decades before, “Running Commentary” would transform online writing and reading in Malta. She was now free to be her own editor and to disseminate her investigations, her satire, her invective and her wit directly to her vast audience without having to deal with the quivering nerves of intermediaries.
I tell you that story because I want you to know I think online media is great. Niche, but vital, information that conventional media overlook is making it to people’s phones. I give you one example. A group of 15 Italian colleagues of mine formed Bullet News. They report foreign news from jurisdictions not typically covered by mainstream media. You’ll get your news from Israel and Russia on Rai. Go to Bullet News to follow what’s happening in Venezuela and Nigeria.
But the story of Daphne Caruana Galizia is also the story of the horrors of online media and how the freer journalists look to you now, the less free they truly are.
Daphne Caruana Galizia died with 47 civil libel suits and 5 criminal defamation actions on her head. Leave aside the risk of prison, she walked around with a liability provision of almost €600,000 on her head. She did not know that she had the liability of $40 million above that from a law suit filed against her in Arizona that she had not been notified about by the time of her killing.
A €600,000 liability risk would feature in the auditor’s report of any news organisation. Any and all Maltese news organisations with that note on their auditor’s report would be foreclosed by their bank. What that means is that Daphne may have felt free to write what she wrote because there was no editor to stop her. But any editor would have stopped her not necessarily because what she wrote was not true but because the auditor and the bank (and before them the company director or shareholder) would not live with that sort of risk.
You think you’re free but you aren’t. You’re just crazy.
Consider that threatened by lawsuits similar to the one Daphne faced in Arizona, The Times, The Malta Independent, Lovin Malta and so on censored their online publications not because they were not convinced by what they wrote but because they could not afford to defend themselves against a lying corporation with very deep pockets.
Being alone does more to you than give you financial liabilities worth more than the entire patrimony of your family. And here is where the imagined freedom of online communication is weaponised in the arms of people all this democracy was supposed to keep in check.
Online trolls look like citizens exercising their right to free speech and exploiting the means technology gives them to disseminate their thoughts widely. It looks like that but it isn’t really.
Facebook above all others, but to a lesser extent other social media as well, is not a neutral vessel for the expression of popular will. Motivated by the maximisation of use and therefore profit it does not choose what news to deliver according to how accurate it is, or how fair, or how credible the record of those communicating is. It delivers posts and messages according to how far they are likely to go.
In that environment the more outrageous, the more incendiary, the more full of hate a post is the harder it will be pushed. The more considered and balanced, the quicker it will be forgotten.
The powerful have understood this. On the global stage, Russia has weaponised social media to sow dissent, mistrust and confusion in the spheres of influence that used to be beyond its reach. This is affecting us. It has brought the United States and the European Union to a democratic crisis, separating us from ourselves, creating a crisis of ennui and political detachment that has given space to corrupt and extremist views in our political framework.
The USSR used to engage with tweed jacket communists in the West during the Cold War but that sort of soft-power special ops never got far. Troll farms in St Petersburg however are doing far more damage. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that whoever hired a denial of service attack on my website in May 2018, shutting it down for 5 days, got bots out of Ukraine to do the job.
More importantly it is no coincidence that Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica hawked his services to Malta’s political parties ahead of the defining 2013 election. Roaming with him at the time was Christian Kälin of Henley and Partners. We know from witnesses that together they manipulated elections in places like St Vincent and the Grenadines and St Kitts and Nevis. They deny it. As Carole Cadwaladr from The Guardian said, ‘you’d have to wonder with technologies like these if we can ever hope to have free and fair elections again. Anywhere.’
We know that the methodology of troll farms was mobilised in Malta, by the Labour Party alone at first, eventually in a far less effective imitation by the Nationalist Party as well. Going back to the Daphne Caruana Galizia story, you still see going around Facebook today when her name comes up, fabricated screenshots quoting her saying things she never said. Never let the truth come in the way of a good Facebook post. Did she write that she wished all children in Labour families to die of cancer? Of course, she didn’t. Or maybe she did? I saw it on the internet.
Because the lie is so incendiary it is shared and shared again, said far more frequently and for more repeatedly than what is required for any ordinary lie to graduate to gospel truth.
But if you’re going to weaponize Facebook, you could do worse. You could drown it in money and it will tell everyone what you want it to say. Our government pumps about as much money in Facebook promoting itself, as everyone else on the island spends in advertising.
This has a number of effects, not all of them obvious. I’ll pass on the obvious ones. The government is the biggest advertiser in Malta by far. It has starved conventional media of its expenditure making them far less viable businesses than they ever were.
You’d say that’s a commercial reality and that’s tough. It isn’t. Cutting government expenditure in subsidising ship-repair is a tough commercial reality. Cutting government expenditure in the media – especially the media that criticise it and hold it to account – is the breach of your fundamental right to be informed.
Remember journalists have no special privileges. News organisations have no special privileges. They only have the duty to satisfy every citizen’s right to be informed. If citizens are not informed by a spectrum of critical and investigative journalists and opinion writers all they’re left with is the unmediated government propaganda on Facebook. And there will be no one to tell you if what you’re being told is true or not.
This takes me to something worse you can do on Facebook if you have enough money. You can harvest data that all users almost unconsciously share, in order to adapt your propaganda, your lies, your incendiary fantasies to the fears and intuitive likes of every individual. The right technology will tell you what scares Jane and what Joe likes. Out of fear or out of favour – without the need to develop policies and to persuade people they are the better choice – you can force people to vote the way you want them to as automata.
Against this grotesque communicative efficiency; against 10 seconds of fear backed up by the funds of governments or corporates that do no mind lying to encroach on more power and money; against the troll farms and the gross social media spending budgets; what use is my freedom to write a blog every day?
What use is the freedom of writing 2,000 words a few thousands will read and that the rest will only hear about because their hero has sued me in yet another vexatious lawsuit?
What use is the online freedom I enjoy if I cannot use it to tell the powerful what they do not want to hear?
And what use was her freedom to write online or on a newspaper for that matter, when Daphne was blown up by those on whom she had written?