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Social media presents a new challenge to free speech. This founder has a plan.

  1. Free Speech

Social media presents a new challenge to free speech. This founder has a plan.

Protecting free speech online is vital. Free speech expert Jacob Mchangama shares how the U.S. can do that.

Ways We Can Protect Freedom of Speech Today

Throughout his career as a lawyer and human rights advocate, Jacob Mchangama has researched across Europe, working towards protecting free speech. His latest role in the United States, heading the Future of Free Speech Project at Vanderbilt University, offers an especially exciting challenge. 

Over the past decade, Mchangama has led Justitia, a Denmark-based think tank that protects freedom of speech across the globe. In recent years, Mchangama's team has focused on a new arena: the internet. This new partnership with Vanderbilt will explore how, as Mchangama says, the internet has become a double-edged sword as it relates to freedom of speech. While it initially stood as a harbinger of expanded opportunity for spreading ideas and information, it has now shifted slightly to enable governments to censor thought-sharing.

Mchangama believes that though the United States may be tempted to adopt more restrictive approaches to regulating speech on the internet, as some European countries have, America should instead be mindful of its singular protections for free expression and the innovation and progress that freedom makes possible.

"Think about all of the great movements that have benefited America, like the Civil Rights Movement," he says. "They've all relied on the practice and principle of free speech to further values that today, the estimated majority of Americans believe are actually essential to American life. Jeopardizing free speech would also ultimately risk jeopardizing some of these landmark achievements when it comes to tolerance and equality that have made immense progress over the years." 

Mchangama describes how the practical exercise of free speech has largely moved from visible, in-person demonstrations to the digital space. The problem with that is that online platforms, especially social media, are still "a digital Wild West." Users and platforms are still learning how to address misinformation and censorship. Misinformation and censorship abound, with little repercussion. Free speech issues today have scarce legal precedents to look to, which is particularly complicated when considering the nature of the internet. 

Here, Mchangama discusses how the expansion of social media has led to new considerations for ways to protect freedom of speech, why the United States shouldn't necessarily look to other countries as models, and Justitia's new partnership with Vanderbilt University to begin the Future of Free Speech Project.

Stand Together: Social media was first lauded as a harbinger of free speech. Now regulating it has become the epicenter of free speech battles. What are you seeing as the biggest current tensions in this space?

Jacob Mchangama: In the U.S., you have traditionally been able to rely on the First Amendment and its very robust protection of speech. But over the past decade, the practical exercise of free speech has moved more into the digital space, which is operated by private actors who are not bound to respect the First Amendment protections to moderate speech. So that has made things more complicated. In addition to that, the European Union and other countries regulate speech in ways that don't conform to First Amendment standards. So increasingly, speech that is being run by U.S. platforms is being regulated according to standards that are much less speech-protective than Americans have become used to. 

But even in the U.S., we've seen a phenomenon where the government leans on platforms through cultivating back channels. They then may not explicitly ask them to remove content, but sort of let them know that there might be repercussions if they don't. So this is something that is affecting speech at a large scale.

Do you believe there's a possibility that the online world can be redirected back to its original promise, as a space where free speech can flourish?

I think it's already happening, we just take it for granted. Most people who complain about social media are actually themselves on social media — most human rights groups and civil rights groups actively use social media whenever they want to spread their message. But it's also true that there's certainly room for improvement when it comes to more bottom-up, decentralized alternatives to the big centralized platforms.  

For groups to develop generative AIs is obviously something that helps this tremendously. Developing new tools can try and counter some of the dark sides of social media and free speech by empowering you to counter hate speech, and empowering you to try to create a more trustworthy ecosystem of information. 

Those are some of the things that we're working on, contributing to instead of only seeing doom and gloom.

You've worked extensively across multiple nations. In what ways is the United States singular when it comes to free speech, and shouldn't look to other countries as models?

It's crucial that America does not compromise its free speech exceptionalism under the First Amendment. I think America has an important role to play in setting standards. At the global level, landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions have inspired courts around the world when it comes to protecting journalists, for instance. Without the U.S. approach to speech, I don't think we would have the amount of creativity and robust exchange of ideas and information online that we do now.

On the flip side, are there other instances internationally that the United States could indeed learn from?

Free speech was obviously not invented in the U.S. It was not invented with the First Amendment. It's crucial to look at the global level to get a better understanding of why free speech matters, and what you can do to retain a robust culture of free speech within this country.

What can Americans consider on a day-to-day basis to protect and advocate for their own free speech rights?

If you're worried about disinformation and you're inclined to think that it would be a good idea if the federal government passed a (censorship) law, think about all the great movements that have benefited America.

The Civil Rights Movement, for instance, relied on the practice and principle of free speech to further values that today the estimated majority of Americans value as essential to American life. Back then, there were serious challenges to some of [the movement's] speech, both through onerous laws as well as intimidation and violence. That's why having that right was so crucial. Jeopardizing free speech will risk jeopardizing some of these landmark achievements.

Tell me about the new Justitia office that you're helming at Vanderbilt University. What is the hope for this new center? What work is being done there?

The Future of Free Speech Project opened up at Vanderbilt in April. It was always our idea to expand, and I think being based in the U.S. is a very logical step. The opportunities here are bigger and better. We still have an office in Copenhagen, so we can cover both Europe and the U.S.

In many ways, we're a separate entity based on campus here, so that really gives us the best of both worlds. We don't have to get any of our work or research or statements cleared by the university, but we can tap into the resources of the university. We've worked closely with the data science department to work on an AI power toolkit to counter hate speech, for instance. Last month we had a conference on AI and free speech here in Nashville. We have a lot of great interns who can contribute to fostering a resilient culture of free speech amongst students at Vanderbilt.

There are many great organizations that work on free speech. FIRE, for instance, does great work, but they have a First Amendment-centric focus. We have one where we're aligned with the First Amendment, but we have maybe a better understanding of the global framework for free speech than most American organizations do. I think that's crucial at a time when free speech regulation tends to often reflect global standards more than the First Amendment, especially in the online space. So that's hopefully where we can contribute.

Looking forward at the next couple of years — especially considering the upcoming election year — what do you think the best case is for free speech and Big Tech?

Hopefully traditional media will live up to best practices in terms of journalism and become less captive to polarization. There's a lot of good information to be gleaned from social media. You can have access to a lot of really useful perspectives. But hopefully, the ordinary user and consumer of social media doesn't take it for granted and just conform to our biases. If we use free speech on social media in that way, I think that's a great potential to further democratic debate.

Learn more about Stand Together's free speech efforts, and explore ways you can partner with us.

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