Scholars debate: Does social media help or hurt free speech?

Professor Robert Reich speaks to the crowd about free speech in an era of digital media. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Professor Robert Reich speaks to the crowd about free speech in an era of digital media. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Social media and digital communication haven’t made it easier to talk about difficult, politically contentious ideas, or given under-represented voices equal footing with politicians and media elites, UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich said Thursday.

Reich, a professor of public policy, spoke at the start of a day-long campus event about free speech in the digital age. Ten years ago, he told the eager crowd in Banatao Auditorium, he thought platforms like Facebook and Twitter would open a great world of digital debate about policy, politics and the future of America.

Instead, he said, they have created homogenous communities where like-minded people recirculate the same thoughts, arguments and often-false facts without any outside perspectives.

“I find it continuously frustrating because I cannot find a medium in which I can get through to people who fundamentally disagree with me,” he said. “It is very, very difficult in this world, as we have constructed it. The echo chambers have been constructed by these mechanisms, these algorithms.”

Social media profiles are also often used to doxx, or expose and intimidate, those who share unpopular political opinions online, or attract people intent on physically assaulting anyone they disagree with, Reich said.

“Social media has become a vehicle for repressing views, because people are afraid of being intimidated into not expressing views that may not be popular or may be misinterpreted,” Reich said.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter and data-mining companies like Equifax have a duty to let people create an online “zone of privacy” where they can express their political views without threat of intimidation, Reich said.

And while much communication happens online, institutions still have a duty to create and protect physical spaces for free speech, he added.

Reich, who teaches in the Goldman School of Public Policy and was secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, said institutions like UC Berkeley must invest in the “free exchange of ideas. It Is worth almost anything we spend on it.”

“it is our responsibility as students, as professors, as teachers, as administrators to make, this a a robust and interesting intellectual experience, … to spend our lives reaching out to people who disagree with us,” he said.

Thursday’s event, sponsored by the Berkeley Center for New Media, comes a little more than a week after YouTube personality Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by students to hold a four-day “Free Speech Week” on campus, and roughly a month after conservative journalist Ben Shapiro spoke to students in Zellerbach Hall. Yiannopoulos was uninvited by his student sponsors, but still came to campus under heavy security for a 15-minute photo opportunity.

Chancellor Carol Christ speaks to the crowd about free speech on digital platforms. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Chancellor Carol Christ speaks to the crowd about free speech on digital platforms. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

The two appearances offered a surprising study in the evolving difference between digital and real-life forms of free speech, Chancellor Carol Christ said in opening remarks.

Shapiro, Christ said, spoke in a prominent campus venue and took questions from students. His speech was livestreamed to a larger audience. Yiannopoulos’s appearance was different, she said.

“To use a metaphor, (Shapiro’s) speech was the object, and the digital representation was the shadow,” said Christ, who is an expert in Victorian literature. “The Milo Yiannopoulos event was really quite different.”

Yiannopoulos’s event was chaotic and poorly organized, Christ noted. Advertised speakers called administrators to say they had never been invited to campus and had no intention of speaking at Berkeley. The student group that invited him missed contract deadlines and failed to make required deposits.

Yet all the while, Yiannopoulos was posting videos about the event to his Facebook and YouTube pages.

“It seemed to me that my metaphor of the object and the shadow was reversed, and the object was the digital footprint, whatever you make digitally of this setup, those shards of things,” she said. “The shadow was anything actual that happened.”

A video of the all-day panel, which included forums on “The Purpose of Debate,” “The Spaces of Free Speech” and “Violence and Free Speech,” can be viewed here. More information about Free Speech Year, including additional events, can be found here.

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu.