Symptoms May Include Censorship

A Future Tense event recap.

Two men on a video conference split screen
Andrés Martinez (left) and Steve Coll (right)
Screenshot from Zoom

As the pandemic has accelerated, so too has oppression of free speech throughout the world. That worries Steve Coll, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer at the New Yorker. (He was also among the founding fathers of Future Tense; it launched when he was president of New America, a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) “We can’t afford to lose journalism as a court of last resort,” he said during Thursday’s Future Tense web event, “Free Speech Project: Symptoms May Include Censorship,” which examined the pandemic’s impact on free speech around the world. In a conversation with Andrés Martinez, editorial director of Future Tense, Coll discussed what we stand to lose if censorship becomes another casualty of COVID-19.

When governments fail, journalism can succeed. Coll said that without the Indianapolis Star’s investigative work, Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics physician accused of sexually abusing hundreds of young women, may have not been brought to justice. Now smaller media organizations are folding, larger ones are laying off staff, tech companies are taking a larger role in moderating speech, and governments are quelling dissent and expanding surveillance in the name of the crisis. Together, those trends threaten free speech when we need it most.

Although threats against it are as old as free speech itself, Coll said there has been a global shift toward authoritarianism in the 21st century. He described this as a moment when governments aren’t even trying to pretend to value free speech anymore: “Regimes like Turkey and Egypt are jailing more journalists than ever,” and attacks on the credibility of independent journalism are on the rise.

Building on this sentiment, Martinez said that global threats against free speech are a “parallel epidemic.” As the entire world responds to the coronavirus pandemic, regimes are getting away with rationalizations of national security that would have been challenged in the past, said Coll. “President Trump’s embrace of populism is a strategy that is echoing throughout the world,” he said, citing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to kill press freedom as an example of the impact of the United States surrendering leadership of global human rights promotion.

Speech isn’t dying out everywhere, though: “[E]ven as there’s a closing of government protections of speech across the world, there’s a huge structural opening of speech online,” said Coll. The advent of online speech has offered new platforms for expression; Coll pointed out that while dissenters in Egypt may have been taken off the radio, dissidents like Mohamed Ali, now exiled in Spain, can write and share things that would have resulted in his immediate arrest in his home country.

While online speech was once heralded as a boon to free speech and democracy, it has also created a pathway for viral misinformation. Martinez said that “10 years ago that structural opening was the cause of great optimism … but in more recent years we’ve been concerned about how these platforms can be weaponized.” Now, legitimate concern about misinformation is being weaponized during the pandemic. As an example, Martinez pointed to countries like Vietnam using COVID-19 as an excuse for silencing dissent.

Martinez asked Coll, a former managing editor of the Washington Post, whether tech platforms should impose editorial judgment on online speech—whether, for instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s role at Facebook may come to resemble the Sulzberger family helming the New York Times.
Facebook is attempting to preempt regulation by engineering its own system of content moderation and even establishing a free speech oversight panel, but Coll said we should be cautious about giving platforms authority to decide what constitutes permissible speech: “It’s always the case that policies that are adopted to silence outside voices silence a lot of other voices.”

Despite the alarming trends, Coll has hope for the future of journalism. “What we think of journalism today at [Columbia’s School of Journalism] is lashed to the scientific method, has a public function, and seeks to justify its protection in the Constitution,” he said.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.