Smartphones and Free Speech

The concept of free speech is a hallmark of the American constitution. The First Amendment has seen some of the most highly contested court cases in history. With a constantly changing technological landscape, society has approached new challenges relating to speech: what constitutes speech? When and how can you express a point online?

To better guide the  understanding of such  challenges, Inside Higher Ed recently spearheaded a study it claims is “undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive surveys of college student attitudes” towards free speech on campus. The study encompassed thousands of college students nationwide, comparing their answers with older adults for consistency. It found that a majority of students are optimistic about the state of the free press. However, after surveying students’ attitudes towards restrictions on “offensive” speech, as well as their opinions on the effects of anonymous speech, the author concluded:

Thus, the real challenge to free speech on campuses is that students seem unable or unwilling in critical instances to talk to each other, especially on the digital platforms that are closely associated with their identities. That has led them down the dangerous path of being too willing to endorse and even demand restrictions on the very speech they are trying to exercise in the service of their own ideas and causes. It is this system of informal censorship that is the most significant challenge to the idea that campuses might still be marketplaces of ideas.

Grappling with opposing viewpoints in college is an unsettling sensation: Up until this point, we were raised a certain way, under unique conditions. As freshmen, we’re suddenly thrusted out of our comfort zone and into a diverse climate of people with highly different formative experiences and communication skills. The internet (and the anonymity allowed by it) exacerbates this confusion.

As emerging adults, students can view this challenge in two different ways. They can do what most adults unfortunately do and retreat into the dark hole of their own perspective, unwilling to attempt to understand what leads others to their beliefs. They can project their viewpoints on others, eliminating the possibility for open discourse. They can turn politics into personal attacks.

Or, they can challenge themselves; apply a critical lens to their own ideas and engage in reflection with their peers. They can pay attention to the wealth of information available. They can use the internet as a tool to further discourse and illumination.

The author argues that the factor of anonymity (more specifically, our response to anonymous trolling) is the largest threat to the free market of ideas:

Our message should be incessantly to everyone, starting with young people, that the superior solution on a campus (and in society) is not to try to censor anonymous speech but rather to ignore it. Students should not pay attention unless the author is willing to put a name on it. Our society still has enough social capital that a great amount of obnoxious speech will probably disappear if the author has to be listed to have an audience.

Anonymity is undeniably prevalent on many platforms of social media. Message boards and comment sections are hotbeds for faceless entities to voice their opinions for the world to see. Location-specific apps like Yik Yak allow anonymous college students to comment on campus-specific issues (the relevance of which is determined by the upvote).

To simply ignore this aspect of participation would be to place a bandage on a much larger issue. Political discourse is rapidly changing during this cycle, and it has become frighteningly apparent that prominent figures are unafraid to have their name attached to objectively “obnoxious speech”.

The author has his own reasons for his optimism towards our “social capital”. We cannot rely on optimism alone, for it has become clear in this election cycle that the worst ideas do not always get tossed aside. We must at least try to identify the root psychological causes behind anonymously-sourced ideas and how they gain traction. Eventually, the opinions of the faceless manifest into frustration and resentment. It is the reason many distrust their elected officials.

In the end, we agree that it’s beneficial to be personally invested in our online discourse; anonymity makes sympathy significantly more difficult. When we as tutors provide homework help with math, chemistry and physics, we want to figure out who you are as a learner. On the flip side, we show you our background and passion for teaching.

We continue to be slightly mystified by how students absorb information on the internet. In a time when a meme that took five minutes to create can ignite Damn, Daniel levels of social awareness, we’ll continue to keep our teaching methods as fresh as a pair of white vans (or whatever isn’t old by the time you read this). We want to engage.

So, when you read a particularly ignorant and offensive comment (or “overly politically correct” comment) on your newsfeed, we encourage you not to ignore it but to stop and consider: how did it get to this point, and where do we go from here?



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