Truth is now more important than speech

Speech is very different now than two hundred years ago

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

We need to redefine what is speech, what is information, and what it means to be free. Doing this with very broad 18th century definitions for the public sphere is not working. The freedom being protected is now allowing greater freedoms to be attacked threatening our very survival as a species.

The sudden reappearance and spread of a major childhood disease that was eradicated just twenty years ago is a fact that cannot be ignored. The spread of measles is blatantly ridiculous. That children are again dying from complications of an eradicated disease because of the stupidity and avarice of a percentage of the population cannot be tolerated.

This situation is remarkable for coming along at a very good time. This issue is a major factor in the growing collapse of rational government but that is too abstract and difficult to deal with. Children becoming ill and dying because of the spread of misinformation is not abstract at all. People cannot allow this and children seeking help are being openly supported.

Here we have another large indication of major change. The old rules, assumptions, definitions are obviously broken and action will result.

Paradigmatic change is, at a foundational level, change in language and meaning. We are having to change what words mean so that we can address new type of issues and solve previously unsolvable problems. We Now need to redefine free speech.

What has broken?

It will take a bit of history to understand this although it is very broadly understood already in post industrial countries. The problem is planet wide but is particularly severe in Western countries and most intense in the most extreme capitalist states.

People blame ‘media’ for misinformation that has created confusion and sequential disasters. The America national elections of 2016, the Brexit vote in Great Britain, racism, fascism (nationalism), the anti-vax stupidity are all examples. The disintegration of the American political parties resulting in the election of a psychopath and criminal are the result of a failure in language and speech.

Blaming media for this disaster is not productive. The concept of mass media is only about two hundred years old. The potential for harm was recognized very early simultaneously with its necessity to be free. The earliest broadsheets were sources of anonymous tales, lies, and misinformation but these also allowed the rise of the concepts of human rights and government being Made accountable to the people being governed. This is all mixed up together.

Attacking media for our new problems is very much a case of killing the messenger of bad news. The problem is an old and simplistic definition of free speech. This is, again, much more complex and will not be an easy change.

The tools that have evolved to handle the issue of mass speech are known as journalism. Journalists were the professional writers of mass media and were expected to maintain formal standards of truth and verifiability. You did not knowingly present lies as truth. Opinions always have more than one side or interpretation.

This was central to the American Experiment with the key founding fathers having been writers and journalists in the birth of newspaper as mass media. The most famous statement of their ideals was written by the British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her book The Friends of Voltaire published in 1906 and often mistakenly attributed to Voltaire himself. This is, ironically, the quintessentially American statment “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Many people assume this was a statement from the founding of the United States but it was English, often mistakenly attributed to a French philosopher, but embodies the American ideal of freedom of speech. While an excellent statement of social ethics it is now too simplistic and increasingly dangerous as fundamentally right.

The historical problem is the failure of journalism as a public standard. Journalists are now as antiquated as scribes who controlled knowledge by choosing what would be copied and maintained. Everyone today is a journalist but without the ethical training or the professional pride that goes with it. And we are not going to be able to create a new journalism when mass speech is as simple as family speech.

The effort has been to keep speech equally free in public as in the home or the street or the corner pub. The difference is when the nature of internetworking takes someone’s meme (another new concept) and repeats it to hundreds of connections who then repeat to thousands more. This is the world of trending memes or, to be clearer, unattributed statements that embody some idea right, wrong, true, false, or indifferent that people find interesting.

This is the problem of social media. The human information processing form is to automatically attribute validity to anything seen in a public media forum even if it only appears to be that. We can learn to judge the forum but that is a slippery slope. The presence of barely legitimate newspapers in the supermarket checkout aisle is a cliche of this. Everyone laughs at this but millions of people buy them or they wouldn't be there.

Is this a problem that can be solved by education? I don’t think so. The alternative is thought to be censorship which is provably worse than what is in the checkout aisle.

The Chinese government has built the Great Firewall that attempts to block all Internet communication from sources that provide information not considered legitimate by that government. That is one approach but that relies on making access to everything but domestic information sources ultimately illegal.

With a long history of governmental censorship in China the people are very adept at quickly changing the meanings of words to get a blocked message across. That is how the Chinese work around this. There is a long history of this around the world. But people get tired and this is a battle of attrition against the ability to communicate openly.

In America and capitalist counties both journalism and the management of information has been left to entities dedicated to profit for their investors. Rather than brute restriction of information access these organizations control information by distortion, misdirection, and financial threat.

This is exacerbated by corporate ownership of state and federal legislators. The extreme examples in America of large funding channels demanding obedience to information guidelines or movement of funds to properly obedient primary challengers completely negates information and speech freedoms. The reality is an Orwellian condition where the absence of free speech is considered the proof of that right’s existence. The loudest supporters of free speech want nothing of the kind.

The disintegration of the old paradigms is now publicly illustrated by the unified institutional attacks on Ilhan Omar for correctly pointing out the power of the huge Israeli lobbying system. Her statements were accurate and in no way antisemitic but all that could be seen initially was the knee jerk outrage at questioning Israel’s control of many members of Congress.

The American media followed the dictated message that any attention to Israeli influence in Washington was not to be tolerated. Misdirection to antisemitism instead of illegal foreign influence is no longer going unchallenged. The quick failure of Nancy Pelosi to understand that the old ways were gone was seen in the strong show of support for Omar illustrative of a changing paradigm.

What is free speech?

This paradigmatic change can be found in the changing concepts of value and economics. That is a factor in the confusion of speech, information, communication, and rights. The structure of the Western and Modern World is a product of the rise of market economics and capitalism. This was the result of the evolution of the concept of value from precious metals and hoarding to trade of material goods, to manufacture of higher value material goods, to inclusion of the labor theory of value, to dynamic concepts of value.

The Information Age began the break from material goods to information as value with information as the dynamic currency of the new economic system. Information flow is now the primary movement of value in this system. Information that is retained and prevented from moving to others is value lost. In simpler terms information has value in direction proportion to its distribution.

This is a change that is not well understood and that lack of understanding is complicating the spread of the new paradigm. Material goods are increasingly being reduced in cost as automation increases efficiency. The supply chains of materiel goods are clearly destructive to the planet and the critical need to maximize sustainability overrides the demand for material growth as the only goal of the old capitalist system.

This change is visible in the increasing power of all types of information as the source of change. We are now constantly struggling with how to handle bad information, e.g. lies and misinformation, that affect negative change in human societies and are actively used to block needed and essential change. Obviously the manufacture of misinformation has been the primary growth industry of the early 21st century.

The concept of free speech was not concerned with the value of the information presented but the right to say anything limited only by slander laws and, eventually, protection of privately owned information. This assumed the value of information was inherent in its retention as a means to gain or preserve material wealth. National security information was a subspecies of material wealth that could be lost to enemies and competitors, nearly indistinguishable categories, and must be carefully hidden.

We are now arriving in a very different world. Information is the true value system and the currency of our era that is wasted if not used. When information is, itself, the value rather than secondary to it as the means of producing material wealth, information creates new value as it flows and informs. It is the concepts and ideas traveling as information that become more and more valuable as more and more people use that information and use it to construct new information. The broader and deeper the information in a society the more wealthy that society is in the emerging paradigm.

This is, incidentally, also a reason that diversity is incredibly valuable and growth in value is increasingly a product of the planet’s metropoles. The old concept of material production requiring infinite growth to define success now must be abandoned but we have already changed to information production as the metric of success and wealth. The failure to realize this is a major cause polarization as perceived.

The value of information is its acceptance as valid. But all information has value based on each individual and social group’s acceptance of that information. This has made it possible for organizations to manufacture misinformation for specific political goals by making that information appear valuable to the target group or groups. This was the process sought in the desperate alliance of the American Republican Party with official Russian interests and the Russian GRU. Trump was a useful agent and Cambridge Analytica was the source of large Facebook datasets to structure models and call lists.

Lies, proverbially, have a short life because they are constantly threatened by truth. But lies can be made that are not threatened and can become very valuable socially. Classical religions are an example. They are obviously based on lies but if those lies are not easily proven to be false or require specialized knowledge to understand the truth that destroys them, they can retain value for segments of the population centuries.

The effort to retain power by being able to present lies as truth, i.e. creating counterfeit information, is a primary form of crime in our world now. Because we are still operating partially, and some people completely, in the old paradigmatic world, we have haven’t realized the destructive power of lies in an era of truth as the primary form of value. We are in the equivalent of the American frontier on a global level with very weak social structure with control of serious crime left to haphazard, do it yourself justice.

Just as counterfeit money and counterfeit brand names are a major crimes in the age of material as value, lies and misinformation are a very serious crime in the age of information as value. Obviously you can build value in a lie, our history of advertising saw this as adding harmless value. In an age with information as the ultimate value lies are incredibly destructive.

Based on this line of reasoning it is obvious that a primary process in the new planetary economy of information is the public certification of truth. This is closely tied to the modern material economy being dependent on government sovereign currency. Information is our currency now and its worth is critical and must be given the legal status of sovereign currencies. Public confirmation of truth is what we are missing.

We are seeing the movement to this in efforts to remove lies and false information from our knowledge economy. Facebook, a primary forum for lies and misinformation distributed by creators of political misinformation, is attempting to move to a private messaging service to limit the impact of large misinformation campaigns.

YouTube, another primary channel of misinformation, has just announced a new notification system that provides fact alerts on search screens showing controversial topic information. This is being tested in India first.

The inherent conflict of allowing a for profit company, traditionally active in advertising sales, to provide the verifiable truth makes this unreliable. While it is possible to say that using the government as the arbiter of truth is also prone to abuse, the history of the USSR illustrates this, it is possible to reduce this source of misinformation in an open, information economy based on scientific principles.

The process has evolved with Wikipedia that allows open correction. Free information controlled by verification of scientific standards of reality as a government responsibility is needed. Not everything is scientifically provable but scientific consensus is a close second for validity. All other areas of human knowledge and discussion can be handled by open confirmation or challenge with no allowance for intentional misinformation. In a planetary information value culture lies are and must be a high crime.

There needs to be laws protecting truth and criminalizing lies with an open, public process of challenging everything that is communicated. We don’t need to limit information flow as that destroys value, as the Chinese will learn, but we need a shared process of confirmation that results in lies being identified as lies and the conscious presentation of misinformation being defined as criminal.

We now need to protect the right to valid information, truth, as more important than mere protection of speech.

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store