Courtesy and the Algorithm – Pittsburgh Quarterly

The polarity is deep. Conversations are tense. Friendships are on the verge.

Could freedom of speech and professional journalism save courtesy?

It has happened before. Human spirits were set free when language was set free. The town square became a metaphor for freedom of speech.

The principles of free speech were not easy to adopt. Discord threatened the feudal order. Kings weren’t amused. More than some of our free-thinking ancestors were silenced on the guillotine.

The speech came to the town square to be tested. Some ideas prevailed. Others didn’t. Many were plunged into darkness. Goodbye forever. That’s the beauty of the first change.

Freedom of speech made free thinking possible. When adopted, this was an epic move for shared ideas. Today language is again being silenced rather than suffered.

Instead of defeating a bad idea in an open forum with more freedom of speech, the unwanted thought is now met with enforced silence. The millennium was not language-friendly.

Silenced ideas don’t go away. They fester in caves. Internet algorithms bring fanatical ideas safely into echo chambers. Like-minded people find mutual support here. Shared bias thrives in remote corners of the web. In contrast to freedom of speech on the town square, suppressed speech is no longer exposed and contradicted. It secretly recruits disciples.

The writers of the First Amendment Freedom of Speech envisioned a marketplace for ideas. Today’s market has turned into something completely different. If you step onto a soap box in the town square, you will probably not find an audience.

Our screens have replaced the town square. With each click, we reveal another piece of ourselves to the algorithm. Click by incremental click, the algorithm takes us deeper into a comfortable information bubble where we don’t have to suffer from the inconvenience of other ideas. Freedom of speech has been stifled. Not surprisingly, we become divided and intolerant.

Divisions are not without precedent in America. The rancor was high during the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and Watergates. Even the ban drew loyal opposition.

Freedom of speech principles conveyed adversity. The first amendment lived up to his ideals.

The open debate in the town square was severe, time-consuming and chaotic. Avoiding competition was not an option. The empty chair signaled defeat. Sunshine became a disinfectant. Our search for the truth was conveyed by an informed public.

We always knew that the censorship had some shortcomings. Who would the Thought Police be? How would an offensive speech be silenced? The Roman satirist Juvenal asked: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (Who is watching the watchers?)

The first amendment served us well because of the Counterspeech Doctrine. Justice Brandeis declared the counter-speech in 1927: “If there is time to expose the falsehoods and errors through discussion in order to avert the evil through the educational processes, the means that must be used is more language, not enforced silence.”

Decades ago some networks and newspapers served a large audience by treating all pages of an issue in accordance with the Code of Ethics for Journalists. Fair reporting was an ethical imperative.

Today, countless stations and websites make it easier for us to access echo chambers. We can expect to learn how the world works, but the world doesn’t come around anymore. The town square was sculpted by algorithms.

Can we loosen the algorithms? Could They Be Detoxified? Can we provide financial incentives to write algorithms with a sense of civic responsibility?

Don’t count on it.

Algorithms are not going to retire anytime soon. Internet titans such as Google, Facebook and YouTube rely on advertising efficiency. It’s their business model. Thanks to robust algorithms, advertisers can address target groups with laser precision. As they say, when it’s free online, you are not the customer, you are the product. We obediently line up like fish in a barrel. This is where our pre-existing ideas are reinforced when the imagination is suppressed.

Could we restore appreciation for common human thinking? For an open debate? For the counter-speech doctrine? Can we break these chains

Before we can solve a problem, we have to see it. Only when enough of us decide to regain this piece of humanity will we find a solution together. First, let’s restore respect for the journalists’ code of ethics in our deliberative democracy.

Messages made available under the Code of Ethics were marked with a price tag. We paid to keep up to date. Today as we oppose that price, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than half of jobs in the news industry have disappeared in the past 15 years.

Our “free” messages take a heavy toll on fantasies trapped in a bubble. An even harsher penalty could be threatened if internet giants themselves become self-appointed arbitrators of the truth to censor the language on their platforms. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?”

Deep divisions, polarity, and even an insurrection become the cost of everything free online.

The price of news generated by the professional ethical standards of journalism pales in comparison.

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