Free Speech And The Problem With False Information


Right now there seems to be a conflict of interest between what information is aired on various media outlets and the tricky area that is free speech. In the current climate, whenever there is a debate between politicians and broadcasters or especially, debates that arise on social media platforms like, Twitter and Facebook, it usually escalates with one side using ad hominem language or arguing that someone’s free speech is being prevented. This can be dangerous because if someone is accused of shutting an argument down thus inhibiting the right to one’s freedom of speech, then it means anyone is free to say anything they like. Even if it is manifestly untrue. A good broadcaster will often be aware of this type of argument and be able to deal with it in a clear and concise way. However, it is a serious problem that needs addressing.


A good example of this was when a man called up a radio station in London last month to talk about vaccinations and a general chat about the pandemic. The caller was essentially laying the claim that people who have received two doses of the vaccines were just as likely or more likely to be infectious to catching Covid and passing it on. The broadcaster taking the call forcibly interrupted the caller requesting confirmation where this information was sourced. The caller could not or would not say. The broadcaster went on to cite several epidemiologists' and virologists' evidence that was in stark contrast to the caller's claim. This led one to look into the research and true enough, it is not even up for debate (although there are some concerns around the Delta variant now emerging around the planet). People who have been double vaccinated are, according to the Imperial London College (04 Aug 2021), “double vaccinated people were three times less likely than unvaccinated people to test positive for the coronavirus.” There may be other studies that vary slightly in how much less likely, however, the evidence is clear that the claim the caller made was untrue. Though to be clear, being double vaccinated does not stop infection nor necessarily stop transmission. The question is about likelihood. And it is worth saying that science may change again in the future.



Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Free Speech History Podcast. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Free Speech History Podcast. https://www.thefire.org/news-and-media/free-speech-history-podcast/


Then, the caller obsessively continued bombarding the airwaves with false information and claimed that his right to express himself freely was being undermined. The broadcaster finally and thankfully lost patience and demanded the caller to stop this nonsense! The caller was told to go away and do some much-needed research because the nonsense that was spurlging out from this man could endanger people listening to the call who might not be sure of what action to take. The broadcaster jumped on the man hard and fast to stop his falsehoods from being repeated and in doing so the caller's right to express his free speech was inhibited.


This is where the problem lies. There are two points that people who feel that this criticism is a valid one, need to consider. One: Free speech is something that everyone has the right to. It also means that by having this privilege, one will occasionally hear something they find offensive or something that is in total contrast to what one believes. Also, there are consequences to what one writes or says, so one is free to lie, however, it is then the responder's right to shut them down if this is shown to be the case. This is the price worth paying in order to live in a democratic society. To repeat the tired and cliched line, one cannot run into a public building shouting fire! when there is not one. This is essentially what the caller was doing albeit unknowingly. Or perhaps knowingly? Also, because coronavirus is a new thing, science is evolving all the time and people may be citing science that was out in the public domain months ago and is no longer valid. Either way, the call had to be terminated because, if nothing else, it was for the safety of others. Two: the caller's free speech was not totally inhibited, although the caller's right to express it fully was prevented. The caller's point was made and quickly shut down. It was shut down because the claim was not true. The caller would be perfectly free to air these views on the street, in the pub, restaurant, at family gatherings, and sadly online. With impunity.



New free speech campaign to train up advocates in UK and US. (n.d.). [Illustration]. New Free Speech Campaign to Train up Advocates in UK and US. https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2019/08/new-free-speech-campaign-to-train-up-advocates-in-uk-and-us/




This is a big problem for the media outlets, though it does not need to be. I believe the broadcaster in the above example took the correct action in terminating the call, however, not all are as brave. The big media companies find themselves in a dichotomy. On the one hand, TV companies such as the BBC, ITV, or SKY do not want to inhibit free speech in order to appear totally and utterly impartial; but on the other hand, will show a debate between two opposing views, often making a false equivalence debate. For example, there might be a panel discussing whether the earth is round or not. On one side of the panel, there will be scientists/physicists who have studied in their chosen fields for decades and have empirical evidence to back any claims. On the other side of the panel, members from the Flat Earth Society, who have done their own research and used pseudoscience to back their claims. So, for the sake of "free speech," this debate is given airtime. It is really odd and one hopes that these media companies have the backbone to say no to these kinds of debates in the future. It is not about shutting free speech down, it's about not letting odd or peculiar ideas to undermine the truth.

References

Alford, J. (2021, August 4). Coronavirus infections three times lower in double vaccinated people - REACT. Https://Www.Imperial.Ac.Uk. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/227713/coronavirus-infections-three-times-lower-double/

YouTube. (2018, May 2). Phillip Is Absolutely Baffled by the Men Who Believe the Earth Is Flat | This Morning [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erA3WQE9Zes&t=302s


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Peter Terrence

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