Social media has pervaded all aspects of life, yet the boundaries of freedom of expression online are still uncertain. Noah Feldman understands, in the highly polarized political and social state of 2022, the high stakes of balancing human rights and online expression through social media.
At 10:45 a.m. Thursday, July 14, in the Amphitheater, Feldman spoke about the relationship between human rights and free online expression, specifically in regards to Big Tech.
His lecture fit within Week Three’s theme “The Future of Human Rights,” which has welcomed speakers like Wednesday’s Chelsea Follett, managing editor of HumanProgress.org, and Tuesday’s Nicole Austin-Hillery, CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Feldman serves as the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, specializing in the Supreme Court, philosophy, politics and religion. An opinion columnist for Bloomberg and host of the podcast “Deep Background,” Feldman has written 10 books, his most recent being The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America. Feldman is also the co-founder of Ethical Compass, a consulting firm that guides companies in making ethical decisions and constructing governance solutions.
To open his lecture, Feldman brought Chautauquans back to the 1800s to examine conceptualizations and progresses of human rights. He first drew attention to July 14’s historical significance, Bastille Day, France’s Independence Day, which eventually led to the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789.
“In 1789, when the French Revolution had its iconic moment of the storming of the Bastille, we got, in what followed later in August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, as it was then called, using the word man,” Feldman said. “Today we would say declarations of the rights of humans and citizens. That was the first canonical statement of a laundry list of human rights conceived in a wholly secular term with no reference to God.”
Only a decade earlier, the Declaration of Independence was created with the same framework in mind, yet with God’s governance included. These human rights, laid out in the documents, draw a distinction between what is “inherent” and what is an invention of man to navigate uncertain times.
“We believe that we have these rights, no matter where we live, even if we live in a country with no freedoms,” Feldman said. “You have to believe in some way, in some notion of universality, to believe in human rights. And yet here’s the paradox. Human beings invented that idea in a specific real-world, historical context. It’s not an idea that humans have always had, that people have these rights always and everywhere. It was invented in time. The idea of universality was invented in a non-universal, particular way.”
Studying these paramount moments in history allows people to understand the concept of human rights in terms of new inventions, particularly in navigating social media and the rights of individuals online.
“I want to make a point that I think is almost never made about human rights, and it’s crucial to understanding human rights today in the era of social media,” Feldman said. “And that is that a fundamental change in human technology drove the historical process that gave us the idea of human rights.”
Feldman pointed to a specific device that was transformative for human rights: the 1500s invention of the printing press.
“The idea of free speech . . . could not have been imagined in an era before the printing press, because most people didn’t think that ordinary people had anything worth saying,” Feldman said. “It wasn’t written down. It wasn’t transferred.”
The printing press permitted the free flow of ideas in a public space, opening a forum for religious expression, new political beliefs, normalized language and nationalism. These developments in free expression prompted times of conflict and uncertainty, which is the exact sentiment Feldman wanted to make in regards to the political and social weight of social media.
“I’m going to lay out some scary things that tend to be the consequences of new social media technologies,” Feldman said. “I don’t want to downplay their scariness any more than I would have wanted to downplay the scariness of the printing press if we were all standing here on July 14, 1522.”
Feldman pointed out two “frightening” facets of social media that are encroaching on human rights, the first being the social aspect.
Unlike with the printing press, views can be amplified through a technological hub for thousands of people to read, whereas print communication is built for, and prioritizes, one-way communication. As people communicate their beliefs online, an algorithm learns their preferences and builds a feed specifically tailored to them. This algorithm is the danger, stifling certain viewpoints and limiting full access to information.
“When we get this information, we are not having the experience that we’re accustomed to having, of many different views being out there in the world and we have to pick and choose what to believe,” Feldman said. “Instead, we’re getting a curated feed. We’re getting a message that no individual human being, but rather the algorithm, thinks will get us going, and we are much more likely to believe what we hear in this way than we would be if we were just receiving it by the usual channels of information.”
Virality and algorithms are lowering general skepticism about information, and are thus leading to more misinformation that people are believing at face value.
“Our skepticism about the information that is shared with us is much lower than it would be if we woke up, went out into the world, turned on the television, or looked at the morning newspaper and saw a range of views,” Feldman said. “That is the feature of the virality that leads to rapid belief. If the thing (that) spreads is false, our usual mechanisms for sorting it out are reduced.”
The second facet of social media that is cause for concern, according to Feldman, is that outlets are privately owned by singular companies. “Big players” in these private organizations can pick and choose the views they want to be promoted on these platforms, narrowing the information users have access to.
“It was this fear that, in the first few years of the rise of social media, perhaps a decade ago, as people began to realize this was happening, led many liberals and progressives to be very concerned that social media would not pay sufficient attention to the value of free speech,” Feldman said.
Feldman asked the audience to imagine the conversation around social media and free speech five years ago, when the liberal stance was a fear of online censorship. The conservative view welcomed this privately-owned space that considered social media a property right for singular parties to own and decide what speech was to be disseminated or promulgated.
However, those stances are now “180-degrees flipped,” Feldman said.
“Today the standard view among progressives and liberals, both in the United States and in Europe and in much of the world, is that it’s crucial that the social media platforms be able to regulate speech on their platforms in such a way that hate speech, racism, inequality, misinformation about COVID and climate change, and the incitement to violence all be banned or limited,” Feldman said.
Conservatives have taken the defense of freedom of speech online, especially after President Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter.
The question pervading both political parties is: Who answers to the concerns of censorship and deplatforming, and at what point does it encroach on freedom of speech? Feldman said the answer is whoever owns the company, using Facebook as an example.
Feldman proposed and designed the idea of Facebook’s Oversight Board, which reviews cases of human rights online, specifically what content is allowed and not allowed.
“They speak about voice or free expression. They speak about human dignity and human equality. They speak about safety,” Feldman said. “The board has the right to look beyond that and to look at principles of international human rights law. … The board has started articulating its reasons when it decides cases in terms of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, in particular Article 19, which is a free expression from this component.”
The answer to questions of censorship, freedom of expression and human rights on social media, according to Feldman, is balance. But, creating concrete solutions to these issues is something that comes from experience learned in real time.
“Balance is the only way that the universal brand claims of human rights can actually work and practice,” Feldman said. “The way we balance is by real-world experience. And we’re living in that experiment right now.”
Feldman concluded his lecture with a statement of reassurance, leaving Chautauquans to reflect on the past to make sense of the uncharted waters of the relationship between social media and human rights.
“We can get both a little bit of reassurance and a little bit of humility from looking backwards in the past and seeing how humans have tried to solve these problems before, how we muddled through,” Feldman said. “We sometimes get it terribly wrong. We sometimes get it really right. When we get it right, we call that human rights. When we get it wrong, we call that the benighted, mistaken errors of the past . . . Human rights values can serve for us as a guide to try to do it better. They cannot guarantee that we will. They can’t. Without them, we have no lodestar to navigate by. That’s no good. With them, we have goals and ideals, but we will still have to work out difficult and concrete solutions.”