Future of Speech Online Symposium Addresses “Understanding Our Online Communities”

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On Friday, December 7, the Center for Democracy & Technology, in partnership with the Freedom Forum Institute, the Charles Koch Institute, and WAMU’s 1A, hosted the symposium The Future of Speech Online: Understanding Our Online Communities in Washington, D.C. The symposium, held at the Newseum, was aimed at addressing questions surrounding online communities, which in some cases bring people together and help forge new connections, while in other cases drive polarization, spread false news, or coordinate harassment. American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) staff attended the symposium, which marked the second year of the event.

“Given that a great deal of the debate over free speech is focused around social media, this was a very timely event for ABFE to attend,” said David Grogan, American Booksellers Association director of ABFE, advocacy, and public policy. “It provided us with a good deal of information from experts in the field and a glimpse into some of the online policies being considered in and out of D.C.”

The symposium’s introductory speaker, Ethan Zuckerman, set the agenda for the day. Zuckerman, who is the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, discussed the progress that has been made in the field of journalism — the inclusion of diverse voices — while also exploring what can be done to address such problems as disinformation and the growth of extremist white supremacist communities on social media. He urged that people must actively determine how they want to shape the Internet and social media so that they work for, rather than against, democracy.

A panel moderated by the Freedom Forum Institute’s Lata Nott and featuring Kelly Born of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Jameel Jaffer of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, Laura Hazard Owen of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and John Samples of the Cato Institute discussed “Combatting Disinformation Online and Offline.”

The panelists offered a variety of perspectives and potential solutions to the problem of disinformation. Jaffer, for example, argued that antitrust interventions that would limit the power of any one tech company are an important part of the solution, while Samples asserted that individuals must be trusted to make their own choices about what to believe or to not believe. Owen suggested various means of addressing the problem of disinformation without regulating content, such as giving people the tools to evaluate the accuracy of information and to ascertain where a piece of news came from.

“Online Communities, Offline Action,” a panel comprised of Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action; State Representative Jewell Jones (MI-11); and Maggie Mayhem, an advocate for sex workers and founder of Harm Redux, highlighted the potential to convert online activism into real change, and also addressed the challenges posed by using social media to mobilize communities. Watts and Mayhem talked about facing harassment both online and offline in response to their online activism, for example. All three panelists shared the tools and strategies they have used to find success in building online communities, including the necessity of intention and deliberation when posting on social media, and tailoring online communications to the specific community.

While speaking during another event later in the day, “Future Visions of the Internet and Free Speech,” Mayhem elaborated more on the problem of censorship on the Internet, particularly in light of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA). The bill was signed into law by President Trump in April and places liability on websites for hosting sex trafficking advertisements, which, Mayhem said, is defined so broadly in the law as to include consensual sex work. Since the law was adopted, sites like Craigslist and most recently Tumblr have removed all adult content, including websites that sex workers relied on to safely screen clients and warn others about dangerous individuals. “These platforms were used to screen, find resources, and build communities,” said Mayhem. “We’ve lost the very tools that people were using to save their lives.”

Despite the problems facing online communities, speakers during “Future Visions of the Internet and Free Speech” expressed optimism for the future of the Internet. Rep. Jones described how he uses social media to connect with and build trust among his constituents, while Nick Alder, founder and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Fly Magazine, described how the Internet allowed her to carve out an online space for members of the queer spectrum and women of color. Finally, the Charles Koch Institute’s Neil Chilson talked about how free speech on the Internet allows for innovation and opportunity.