Events - 04.05.2017 - 00:00 

"We have to fight for freedom of speech in a self-critical way"

In this year’s "Max Schmidheiny Lecture" in the context of the St. Gallen Symposium, historian and author Timothy Garton Ash talked about freedom of speech and the challenges of populism. HSG Prof. Christoph Frei introduced Ash.

5 May 2017. "The digital revolution is the most important example of disruption," said Timothy Garton Ash at the start of his lecture, adding. "Thanks to mass migration and the Internet, we have all become neighbours." In theory, half of humankind could communicate directly with one another digitally. This is a huge opportunity for freedom of expression, but at the same time entails risks such as surveillance, mobbing and hate speech. "The Internet is the world’s largest sewer," Ash said, pointedly. Freedom of expression is in danger virtually anywhere in the world.

Of dogs, cats and mice

Timothy Garton Ash identified four forces that have a determining influence on freedom of speech. Besides international organisations and contracts, it is countries ("big dogs"), private-sector superpowers such as Google, Amazon and Facebook ("big cats") and we, the citizens, ("mice"). Even well-organised mice can influence big dogs and big cats, though, he added.

He cited uncensored, diverse and trustworthy media that make it possible to make decisions through reliable information, and thus participate in political life, as the most important pillar of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression consists of two ideals that go back to classical Greek ideas of democracy: "Parrhesia means free speech with good intentions for the benefit of the community, and not just saying what comes to mind," the historian explained. "The second ideal, isegoria, means equality, that everyone can talk freely."

Internet destroys media’s business model

Timothy Garton Ash showed evidence of a dramatic fragmentation of the media landscape, which is vital for democracy, due to the digital revolution. Populists especially use the possibilities of the Internet to attack and weaken liberal democracies. Anonymity promotes verbal violence online, and so-called "echo chambers" lead to people only seeing and hearing what confirms their opinions. "Another danger is the repetition effect we also know from the history of propaganda," said Ash. "If untruths are stated often enough, it increases the chances of people believing them." Also, people are increasingly less prepared to spend money on well-researched news and confine themselves to their Facebook "newsfeed", for example, whose algorithm is kept secret.

The struggle for survival of many newspapers further aggravates the situation: "What do we do when we are drowning? We scream and wave." As a consequence, there is an increasingly superficial, sensationalist and biased reporting. "Facts are expensive." Thus, Ash not only takes the media, but all liberal forces, up on their promise: "We have to fight for freedom of expression in a self-critical way."

Simplistic, emotional narratives

As the main problem, Timothy Garton Ash did not identify "fake news" itself, but the simplistic, emotional narratives we know from the election campaigns in France and the US and the discussions about Brexit, for example. "Those narratives are powerful because they bring together and hold together usually heterogeneous groups and interests," said Ash, referring to "coalitions of the unwilling". Emotions and not facts play the decisive role. Ash mentioned the discussion in the US about whether Barack Obama is a true-born American or not. Even when Obama produced his birth certificate, many Americans had a different "feeling" about his country of birth.

Christoph Frei, titular professor for political science at HSG, also talked about the charged relationship between emotionality and reason and asked whether emotions are not always a central element of public dialogues and the solidarity of nations. Timothy Garton Ash stressed that many outstanding politicians were journalists and authors. Winston Churchill, for example, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. "He knew how to tell emotional stories based on facts," he said. Today, political language is often too chilly and bureaucratic.

From the audience, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times mentioned historic coherences and questioned the proposition of massive consequences of the digital revolution. In the 1920s and ‘30s, for example, there were also lies, propaganda and misinformation. Timothy Garton Ash stressed that no automatic implications arise from technological developments, but rather positive and negative possibilities. Another difference is that there no longer are big news media monopolies: "We are dealing with countless platforms and many small untruths. There is no longer just one Big Brother."

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