by Noah Tang
Freedom of speech and the press are two of the most fundamental values of a free society. The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects both rights. Historically, the United States has respected these freedoms, which were among the principles it was founded upon. Most nations throughout history, and many countries today, have not done the same.
Dr. Christine Kim, Assistant Professor of International Studies, is from South Korea. She saw how freedom of speech and the press has developed there alongside other democratic reforms.
“South Korea is now almost a full democracy, but it was not when it was founded,” Kim said. “Initially, it was authoritarian, with freedom of speech and other freedoms restricted. In 1987, South Korea got a new constitution that let people vote for the president. After the consolidation of democracy in the late 80s and early 90s, Koreans enjoy freedom of speech—maybe too much, with digital and social media.”
Indeed, an increasing degree of free speech seems to be the overall trend worldwide. China has been freer than before and has some freedom of speech, but that has reversed a bit recently. Japan enjoys freedom of speech as a democracy.
“In Taiwan and South Korea, people have freedom of speech but cannot fully enjoy it in matters of national security because of their situations,” she said.
This is because they are often threatened by rival governments, China and North Korea respectively.
According to Kim, culture plays a large part in determining how free speech is exercised.
“In Confucian cultures, men were traditionally discouraged from speaking too much,” Kim said. “If you talk a lot, that doesn’t look good, especially for politicians and men. This is why Asian men tend to look serious and reticent. Even women are affected by this ideal. This also affects how democracy works in those cultures.”
Throughout the world, much progress remains for promoting free speech and a free press. Even in America, various threats have occurred since the nation’s founding, with cancel culture being the latest phenomenon.
Dr. Glen Duerr, Professor of International Studies, observes that cancel culture can only occur in a free society.
“Globally speaking, we’re seeing cancel-culture-like ideas in several countries,” he said. “If you live in an authoritarian country, you are very likely to be ‘canceled’ if you speak out against the government. But cancel culture is more relevant to democratic countries, and it can have the unexpected outcome of eroding free speech.”
At the same time, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. Like most, if not all other rights, it must be exercised within reason. According to Duerr, everyone should have the right to speak, but not everyone is an expert. National media is privatized and seeks a base. Local media does more analysis, reporting of facts, and does a better job representing different opinions.
“Although freedom of speech is a good thing and we need it, there is also a dark side,” Kim said. “People abuse it. We must be careful what we speak or write about, because the content, relevance, etc. of our speech and writing matters as well. We must be responsible citizens in our respective societies so we can be good stewards of our freedom.”
Another more subtle threat to the freedom of speech comes with the rise of social media. According to Duerr, the goal of a lot of foreign social media content is to divide democratic societies, and America specifically.
In a world where social media usage is common, unique problems arise.
“The danger of social media, especially fake news, is it attracts followers by appealing to their presupposed narratives, bypassing any critical thinking,” Duerr said.
According to him, many bad actors utilize popular social media platforms to disseminate misinformation and disinformation.
“There’s a lot to this that has changed even in the last 15 years, especially with social media,” Duerr said. “In North Macedonia, the government doesn’t support this, but there are entire villages that have troll farms set up to divide democratic societies.”
Additionally, several governments actively support and engage in such practices, according to Duerr. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are behind much of the troll farm activity that is intended to destabilize Western democracies. These countries promote such divisive disinformation at the expense of democratic nations, both to weaken and to discredit the latter. This way, they can present themselves as viable alternatives to the democratic order. Russia especially has used such tactics to distract citizens of free societies from its aggression. It ultimately sought to weaken NATO by such means.
Organized social media manipulation started in Russia about around 15-20 years ago. America’s first experience with mass disinformation on social media was in 2016. The United States was subjected to copious amounts of foreign disinformation in both 2016 and 2020, including false content about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Duerr believes addressing such problems is possible.
“Social media platforms reacted too late to false attempts to undercut democracy,” he said. “There has got to be a way to respect free speech, especially in political elections; while clamping down on fake news.”
Noah Tang is a graduate student majoring in Biblical Leadership, and a writer for Cedars. He likes to spend time with friends, ride his bike and watch movies.Photo Credit: Robin klein, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons