In a recent article, a study from the Pew Research Center was analyzed. The study consisted of various surveys and found that online trolling is both pervasive and very hard to combat. The study also suggests that online anonymity and the current state of economic inequality in the United States both contribute to the situation.
Free speech doesn’t necessarily mean civil speech
In a country founded on the principles of representative democracy, an informed citizenry is absolutely necessary for good governance. Central to that end is the tool of free speech. Free speech, of course, doesn’t mean just permitting the thoughts that one agrees with. It means, often times, entertaining ideas that one finds vile or despicable. In fact, it is this latter ability that often separates those who are truly adherents to the ideals of free speech from those who aren’t.
However, all this comes at a price. Online, free speech often means that the discussion quickly descends into heated animosity and personal attacks. Even the best moderators struggle to deal with the ever-present tendency of online discussions to sink to the basest levels of pointless quarrel. And this is a problem for those who seek only to provide platforms for discussing ideas on their own merits.
An even greater problem arises when websites, social media influencers and even politicians realize that it is precisely the lowest, most pugilistic discourse that gets viewers and clicks. This leads to a natural tendency of some websites that are mostly concerned with increasing traffic numbers to cater to the most controversial topics and encourage personal attacks and heated exchanges among their readership.
Experts seriously question whether this type of free speech is strengthening the state of civil discourse or leading to a more fractured, polarized society. It seems clear that, in many ways, people are becoming increasingly trapped in intellectual bubbles where they mostly read and hear news stories or editorials that reinforce their previously held opinions. Such failure to consider other sides of complex issues portends badly for the future of a country that is explicitly founded upon the idea of having an informed and reasonable electorate.