Human Rights Promotion (1): Are “Social Media” and the Internet in General Good or Bad for Human Rights?

Well, it depends, as they say. “Both” is of course the only correct answer. If you’re an optimist, you would say that:

  • Social media make it easier for people to mobilize and coordinate their activities in the event of anti-authoritarian protests; to publish alerts in case of police attacks etc. They are a useful tool in strengthening resolve and confidence, given the fact that people will only turn up at potentially dangerous protest marches when they feel confident that a very large group will turn up (see here).
  • Free speech is of course greatly enhanced by the internet, including the right to information (the passive side of free speech).
  • The internet improves the marketplace of ideas; see here.

On the other hand, if you’re a pessimist, you would say that:

  • The internet and social media allow governments to monitor dissidents. For example, an authoritarian government can track dissident groups through Facebook profiles and friend networks, through Twitter communications and email etc.
  • Those governments can also use the internet to distribute propaganda, while stifling dissenting voices (they have the hardware, the software and the access to providers necessary to censor the internet).
  • Terrorist groups also have been successful users of the internet, particularly through video messages and videotaped atrocities.
  • There are the obvious privacy concerns. Etc.

The question therefore isn’t “good v. bad” but how to promote the good effects while minimizing the bad ones. In any case, internet euphoria about “twitter revolutions” and such seems very simplistic.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (22): Utopia

Die wirkliche Genesis ist nicht am Anfang, sondern am Ende. Ernst Bloch

You could view the struggle for human rights as a “utopian” one. We’ll never live in a world that respects human rights completely and universally. The only thing we can hope for is an incremental improvement. And there are many reasons for this limitation: people always come up with new ways to violate human rights (“ah, the Internet! let’s make a Great Firewall!”), and people always come up with new human rights as a way to redress newly discovered wrongs. And even if we hope for incremental improvement, we can’t be sure that things are going as we hope, given the lousy measurement systems.

And yet, if you scratch the surface a bit and look at the deeper meaning of the word “utopian”, you’ll discover that utopian thought is fundamentally inimical to human rights. In fact, there’s perhaps no better way to violate human rights than to be utopian. Both the struggle for utopia and life within utopia are necessarily detrimental to human rights. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s easy to see how the struggle for an ideal can lead to disaster. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. We’ve seen many examples of this in recent history. But not only the struggle for utopia leads to rights violations; utopia itself does the same. Strange perhaps, since utopia is the ideal world. How can there be rights violations in an ideal world? And yet, no matter how it is envisaged, utopia violates human rights.

Utopia, where there is no war, strife, exploitation or scarcity, does not allow contestation, change or diversity. What’s there to contest if society has reached perfection? Why change when you can’t improve? Why have diversity, since diversity means different points of view about goals. If there are different points of view, some of them must be wrong. When people advocate wrong views, you have hardly reached perfection, and you’re likely to have conflict, violence etc. You can already see why people would believe that human rights are useless in such a world. Why would you need free speech if there is unanimity? Now, if there really is unanimity, human rights are indeed superfluous. No reason to express your views and to have rules to protect that expression if everyone has the same views. However, unanimity will probably always be something that has to be enforced because even in utopia some people will not freely understand their own wrongness or give up their own vision of perfection. Only a radically new but also radically improbable type of human being would populate a unanimous society. This enforcement of unanimity is necessarily a violation of human rights, which is why such violations would have to occur in utopian societies.

If you look at historical utopian thought, you’ll see that utopia is typically a highly centralized and planned world. It’s one big organization, a megamachine. Streets are geometrically designed. People’s movements are directed and controlled in order to avoid clashes and inefficiencies. Every detail is planned beforehand. Everything is rational. One hospital per square kilometer, one school, and one church. The organic growth of real cities is suboptimal because it hasn’t been planned beforehand. Real cities aren’t rational, orderly or efficient because no one has designed them. Hence, what is required is a tabula rasa. That means kicking people out of their houses and demolishing their houses. It means centrally allocating jobs so that the people don’t start a career that wouldn’t be the best one for them and for the whole of society. The structure of utopia is designed to enforce a certain behavior that promotes efficiency. Movement, habitation, work and all other aspects of life are planned and organized. The consequences of this aren’t limited to evils such as boredom, repetition, the absence of creativity and of the unexpected, or the feeling of being stuck in the present (the past is gone because that’s just the history of imperfection, and there is no future either because the future is here). The evils will be a lot worse than that: massive violations of rights, limitations of freedom and invasions of privacy are inevitable in utopia. Utopia is necessarily dystopia.

Of course, utopia can be a useful theoretical construct. I don’t want to trash every type of utopian thinking. A utopian vision is typically the current world put upside down. It is a tool that makes criticism of the current world possible, and it may provide a driving force for incremental change. It can motivate people to work for a slightly better world. It’s like you only know how troubling poverty is when you know what it would mean to be rich. But this realization shouldn’t make you desire a world of only rich people; a world without poverty suffices. Utopia, in this sense, is not a blueprint for the future, but merely a kick in the gut. That is also why many utopian fantasies were not located in the country the writer lived in, but in a far away place, an island or a mountain top. And that’s where they should remain. They are a means, not a goal. And true Genesis is neither at the beginning nor at the end; it’s ongoing. We daily remake our world and we’ll most likely never finish.

Freedom of Expression and the Internet

The internet is undoubtedly a huge boost for freedom of expression, and not only a quantitative boost. It has certain qualitative characteristics that older media don’t have, which make it particularly beneficial for free speech.

A first reason why the internet promotes free speech is its relative cost: it has made speech much less expensive. You even don’t need to own a computer since you can, with relative ease, use a public one. And even the cost of a computer pales compared to the cost of many older media.

Another reason is that governments find it much more difficult to censor speech on the internet. Speech is no longer bound to a particular carrier which can be easily confiscated or destroyed, or to a particular territory where a state can exercise its power. People can publish on websites in other countries without being there. Of course, governments do retain some considerable censorship power over the internet, as is demonstrated by the case of the Great Firewall of China, but it’s safe to say that this power is relatively weak compared to government’s powers over traditional media, precisely because of the international character of the internet.

Unfortunately, we see that private actors sometimes replace the government as censors. The discussions on net neutrality for example result from some cases where internet providers have blocked access to competitor sites or favored access to friendly or related sites (see the case of Telus blocking access to a labor union website). One could also claim that Google, for instance, despite the good it does for free expression, also in a way limits it, since it systematically channels people towards speech that already has much exposure and freedom, and “buries” all the rest (read more about this here). There is still domination and inequality on the web; the question is whether on average the internet has done more to limit it or to advance it. I believe the former.

A third reason why the internet promotes free speech is the gradual disappearance of middle men. You don’t need editors, publishers or peer review to publish your views. In traditional media, these middle men normally filter out a lot of speech, often to the benefit of the public but never to the benefit of speech.

So these are three reasons (among many others) why the internet expands the amount of speech and promotes free speech in a quantitative way. But it can also be argued that the internet has improved speech in a qualitative way. That may be a counter-intuitive claim, given the amount of bullshit that’s present on the web, and yet I think it’s true for many pockets of the internet. Because the internet creates a quantitative boost for speech, it also produces a qualitative one. The internet has allowed more people to speak, listen and discuss, and it’s a common argument in philosophy that widespread participation in discussions tends to improve the quality of people’s opinions, under certain ideal circumstances. I won’t make the detailed argument here, since I’ve done that many times before. In a few words, the argument boils down to this: the freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on issues. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality.

Limiting Free Speech (34): Pornography and Sexual Violence

In this older post I mentioned the possibility that pornography causes sexual violence, and that this violence could be one of the justifications for prohibiting or limiting pornography, and hence for limiting one form of free speech. (The physical integrity rights of the victims of pornography induced sexual violence outweigh the rights to free speech of pornographers and their clients). I also cited some scientific research corroborating the link between pornography and sexual violence.

Now I came across some evidence pointing in another direction. Large increases of internet use of the last years, together with a proliferation of websites offering free porn, should, in theory, lead to a large increase in the numbers of rape. But that isn’t the case.

The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments. The bottom line on these experiments is, “More Net access, less rape.” A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And, according to Clemson professor Todd Kendall, the effects remain even after you control for all of the obvious confounding variables, such as alcohol consumption, police presence, poverty and unemployment rates, population density, and so forth. Steven E. Landsburg (source)

Another study:

A vocal segment of the population has serious concerns about the effect of pornography in society and challenges its public use and acceptance. This manuscript reviews the major issues associated with the availability of sexually explicit material. It has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased. (source, source)

So it seems that the opposite is true: more porn = less rape. Maybe porn is a substitute for rape. In which case, one of the justifications for restricting the free speech rights of pornographers collapses. However, I mentioned in my old post that sexual violence isn’t the only possible reason to limit the rights to free speech of pornographers. Pornography can, for instance, perpetuate discriminatory gender roles. And the quote below shows that there is some evidence that pornography increases the likelihood of re-offending:

In this study, we examined the unique contribution of pornography consumption to the longitudinal prediction of criminal recidivism in a sample of 341 child molesters. We specifically tested the hypothesis, based on predictions informed by the confluence model of sexual aggression that pornography will be a risk factor for recidivism only for those individuals classified as relatively high risk for re-offending. Pornography use (frequency and type) was assessed through self-report and recidivism was measured using data from a national database from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Indices of recidivism, which were assessed up to 15 years after release, included an overall criminal recidivism index, as well as subcategories focusing on violent (including sexual) recidivism and sexual recidivism alone. Results for both frequency and type of pornography use were generally consistent with our predictions. Most importantly, after controlling for general and specific risk factors for sexual aggression, pornography added significantly to the prediction of recidivism. Statistical interactions indicated that frequency of pornography use was primarily a risk factor for higher-risk offenders, when compared with lower-risk offenders, and that content of pornography (i.e., pornography containing deviant content) was a risk factor for all groups. The importance of conceptualizing particular risk factors (e.g., pornography), within the context of other individual characteristics is discussed. (source)

Marx and Democracy

According to Marxism, democracy suffers from a contradiction between political equality on the one hand (equal votes but also equal rights, equality before the law etc. – see here and here) and economic or material equality on the other hand. The absence of the latter prevents the full realization of political and even judicial equality (equality before the law). Wealthy persons have more means (such as money, time, education etc.) to inform themselves, to lobby, to influence, to get themselves elected, to defend themselves in court etc. A merely formal principle such as political equality loses much of its effectiveness when some can use their wealth to control political debates and decisions. Even more so, political equality, democracy and equal human rights (not only the right to private property) serve to cover up, justify and even maintain material inequality, exploitation and class rule in a capitalist society.

Real material equality and therefore also real political and judicial equality can only be brought about by an anti-capitalist revolution which brings down the capitalist system of property along with the legal and political tools that are used to protect this property. Material redistribution is not enough because it does not affect material inequality in a substantial way. It only provides a minimum of basic goods. The remaining material inequality still affects political equality. Democracy is self-defeating. It can never deliver what it promises because it does not go far enough. It can only give people formal instead of substantial equality. Elections, rotation in office, economic rights etc. are superficial phenomena without effect on the deeper economic processes of exploitation and class rule. Democracy must therefore be replaced by something better.

Marxism claims that there can only be real political equality and real equality of power when the most important goods – the means of production – are the equal property of all citizens. In all other cases, the rich will have more opportunities to benefit from political participation and judicial protection. Equal rights will lead to an unequal outcome, and this is intentional.

Much of this is, of course, correct. Wealthy groups can and do use elections and human rights to pursue their interests, often at the expense of less fortunate groups. They may even use democracy to maintain exploitation. They can speak better thanks to their education; they have a better knowledge of the ways in which to defend interests; they know their rights; they have friends in high places, etc. That is why compensating measures have to be taken, not only in order to respect economic rights, but political rights as well. By way of these measures, the state redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, in order to grant the poor more political influence and not just in order to satisfy their basic needs. Other measures enhance the independence of political parties with regard to wealthy pressure groups (for example public instead of private funding for political parties).

It is clear that we are not dealing with a potentially fatal argument against democracy. Wealth causes political inequality everywhere, not just in a democracy. Democracy and human rights are in fact the only solution to the problem of the unequal political result of economic inequality. Democracy and human rights are not merely formal. Equal voting power, equality before the law and equal rights do not cover up and do not maintain the social division between rich and poor. Democracy does not hide divisions; it shows them and it shows them in a better way than any other form of government. And because it allows divisions to become public, it offers the best chance of eliminating or softening unjust divisions. Democracy does not only serve the interests of the wealthy classes. Poor, exploited or oppressed groups also benefit from freedom of expression, from the election of their own representatives and from the possibility to claim rights (economic rights, for instance, equalize political influence because they create leisure time which can be spent on politics). Even the bare fact of being able to show an injustice is an advantage in the struggle against this injustice. If you are not able to see an injustice – and this can happen in an unfree society – then you are not aware of its existence and you can do nothing about it. Democracy at least gives poverty a voice.

The struggle against injustice means questioning society and the powers-that-be (also the economic powers). It is easier to question social relationships in a society in which political power can be questioned. Publicly questioning political power in a democracy is a process in which the entire people, rich and poor, are involved. This process legitimizes the act of questioning per se and therefore also the act of questioning injustices in society. Elections and rights are not a force against change. They create infinite possibilities, including the possibility to change economic structures.

Of course, the political and legal elimination of the difference between rich and poor (they all have an equal vote, equal rights and equality before the law) does not automatically result in the elimination of the social difference between rich and poor. However, democracy and human rights can diminish the influence of property and wealth because:

  • They give legal and political means to the poor in order to defend their interests; no other form of government performs better in this field because no other form of government gives the same opportunities to the poor (the opportunity to show injustices, to elect representatives, to lobby governments, to claim rights etc.).
  • They diminish the difference between rich and poor by way of redistribution; they allow for compensating measures to be taken, measures which help to preserve the value of political participation for all (for example redistribution, but also measures such as subsidies for independent TV-channels or for political parties which then become more independent from private wealth and private interests).

If certain divisions are made politically and legally irrelevant (by way of equal rights, equality before the law, equal vote etc.), then this is not necessarily part of a conscious strategy to maintain these divisions in real life. If it were part of such a strategy, it would probably produce the opposite of what is intended. The chances that injustices disappear are much higher in a society in which injustices can be shown and questioned, and only a democracy can be this kind of society. A society which can question itself because it can question the relations of power, is more likely to change. This is shown by the recent history of most western democracies where many injustices have been abolished by way of democracy and human rights. The labor movement, the suffragette movement and feminism would have been impossible without democracy and rights. Workers, women, immigrants etc. have all made successful use of the possibility to claim rights, to elect representatives, to enact legislation etc.

Political influence will probably never be equal for everybody (talent also plays a role, and it is difficult to correct for the effects of talent). But there is more and there is less. Democracy is probably the best we can hope for. On top of that, democracy constantly enhances the equality of influence, even though every victory creates a new problem. The Internet, for example, will empower many people and will enhance political equality, but it will also exclude many other people, namely those without the necessary computer skills or without the infrastructure necessary to use the Internet on an equal basis. It can become a new source of political inequality. We will have to finds ways in which to equalize the access to and the use of the Internet because we want to maintain or increase political equality. In the meanwhile, however, a new kind of inequality should not make us lose sight of the enormous progress for equality which the Internet allowed us to achieve. Many people, who today use the Internet to participate in politics, never participated in the past.