Why are we now, in 2019 revisiting basic human rights such as the right of free expression? How have we come to the point where our Prime Minister is having international discussions about having free expression curtailed on social media?

In the same way the World Trade Center attack saw US civil rights eroded we are now seeing the New Zealand legislature move toward curtailment of civil rights in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack. It would be a mistake to believe that free speech has been eroded by this one act of terrorism. Rather there has been an erosion of the principle of free speech as a consequence of being coupled with hate speech. The left, who have traditionally been strong supporters of human rights such as free speech have abandoned it in order to justify silencing of those they disagree.

We make the argument here that having a society where people can openly discuss their different ideas without fear of being punished for their views is important for maintaining civil society. This means a society of people who are tolerant of alternative points of view. Tolerance in this context means not seeking to harm others simply for expressing their view, no matter how offensive they might find it. Tolerance does not imply endorsement or agreement, rather simply acceptance of the rights of others to hold alternative views.

Three Forms of Speech

For the purposes of this argument we are going to define three forms of speech. The first is inoffensive speech, meaning speech that nobody finds offensive. Speech such as “would you like a coffee?” Even this category is not necessarily fixed over time, but it requires no legal protection as it is not contested.

Unlawful speech is that which promotes hatred and advocates harm or violence, which is unlawful under the New Zealand Human Rights Act, at least if done on the basis of race. The broader principle here is that any action or speech which advocates the denial of lawful human rights and freedoms to others cannot be tolerated in civil society. This includes right to life and safety as well as free expression and belief.

Our final category is offensive speech. This speech is offensive in the mind of the receiver. A statement of fact for one person might be grossly offensive to another. There are two areas where this kind of speech is most evident; politics and religion. Offensive speech is lawful, although libel applies when the speech is false and malicious.

People who subscribe to different political or religious ideologies can have wildly divergent views with regard to what is offensive speech. The point of free speech as a shared social value is that it allows people to have these divergent points of view while maintaining social peace. When the principle of free speech begins to break down people no longer respect the right of others to hold divergent views conflict and violence is not far behind.

The line between offensive speech and unlawful speech is important because it defines the limits of free speech protections under the law. Inoffensive speech needs no protection. Unlawful speech advocates for violation of the rights of others and is illegal. Our concern relates to offensive speech. In our view interaction between people with divergent views in a marketplace of ideas is a moderating influence on radical irrational views. By erecting barriers between people we are only going to reinforce and deepen divisions, promoting the hatreds that we seek to overturn.

Broadening of Hate Speech

The term ‘hate speech’ was originally intended to be synonymous with unlawful speech, speech which advocates for the violation of the rights of others. However the definition is being stretched to encompass a far broader set of speech.

Israel Folau has been in the news recently for posting that homosexuals among others will be condemned to hell by God. His position, one taught to him by what is mainstream Christianity, has resulted in him losing his contract. The humanist position on the matter of homosexuality is clear; we should treat everyone with the same humanity and not condemn or hate anyone. We applaud Louisa Wall for introducing marriage equality, and the New Zealand legislature for passing it. In no way do humanists have sympathy for the theological position held by a majority of Christianity and Islam that homosexuals deserve to be punished for being who they are.

We do however remain committed to the right of theists to hold their beliefs. We are concerned about the message the firing of Folau sends, which is that it is acceptable for an organisation to punish a employee for expressing their religious or political view. People in our community are active in campaigns for controversial issues such as end of life choice and women’s rights to an abortion. We do not want to endorse the message that political speech or religious belief should put jobs at risk.

Even more concerning is recent statements by Louisa Wall which raise questions about the intentions of the Government with regard to free speech and a free press.

Louisa Wall recently said that she was committed to ensuring political cartoons she believes are racist can never be published again. The question as to whether they are racist or not is not at issue here, but rather whether they were just offensive or actually unlawful? The Human Rights Review Tribunal found that while the cartoons may have “offended, insulted or even angered”, they were “not likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of their colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”. For that reason their publication was not unlawful.

In a subsequent online discussion Wall states that “The cartoons are abuse and a form of psychological violence – that’s the point of highlighting that racism that continues to be transferred across generations is psychological violence and abuse that harms.” The use of the term ‘psychological violence’ appears to be a way to broaden the meaning of the Human Rights Act to apply to offensive speech that might cause psychological harm, thus encompassing any form of speech that causes offense.

Wall outlined her view on how to control speech, saying “It is time that [the media] was formally recognised as part of a political system, as it wields significant indirect social influence. This would impose a Duty of Care on The Media – a formalisation of the social contract, the implicit responsibilities requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others.”

The term ‘harm’ in this context evidently includes ‘psychological violence’, meaning that the media, including social media, would be held responsible if what they disseminated caused any psychological harm. Needless to say if such a system were introduced no offensive or controversial speech would be possible. Political speech would be shut down. Media would not be able to cover any controversial issues if all content had to go through a filter to remove any speech that might foreseeably offend anyone. We are opposed to expanding the meaning of unlawful speech in this way.

The Role of Social Media

In response to the Christchurch terrorist attack Jacinda Ardern said “We all need to act, and that includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms, and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.”

Few would argue with the sentiment that we should not permit speech which is actively calling for violence, or worse in the case of Christchurch live streaming a terrorist act. It is however a fact that this sentiment has expanded to include political ideas.

The call to remove ‘hate speech’ from platforms like facebook has become a broader call to remove people with heterodox views. People are already being banned from social media as a result of de-platforming campaigns which are essentially mob rule. Often social media personalities have a significant following, and so banning them not only affects the individual concerned but their wider community.

It is difficult to see how social media platforms could remove content in real time without also substantially censoring a vast range of protected political speech. For example, it is a valid political view that we should reduce immigration, but this view is also held by violent extremists. How does one distinguish between them? Is censorship really the answer or just an ambulance at the bottom of broken social discourse?

Algorithms of Division

Nick Bostrom described a thought experiment in 2003 about a paperclip maximiser, an artificially general intelligent system whose utility function is to maximise paper clip production. The paperclip maximiser would lack the social values of humans, and so would continue to make paperclips even as it destroyed humanity and turned the entire Earth into a huge pile of paperclips.

Academic thought experiments are one thing, but surely the musings of intellectuals are irrelevant to the real problems we face today? The field of artificial intelligence ethics has been largely ignored as esoteric primarily because it was framed as relevant only when machines achieved the miracle of ‘general intelligence’.

But let us turn away from the considering the possibilities of the future to the reality of today. Today we have huge sprawling data centres that consume vast volumes of data collected from users. The software in these data centres is designed essentially for one purpose; to keep users attention on the platform for as long as possible. By capturing attention they capture advertising revenue.

Just like with the paperclip maximiser the neural networks making decisions about what to show have only one goal, to keep users engaged. It has no malice, no real awareness of any kind in fact. It is simply a neural network whose world is constrained to clicks and likes. It is rewarded for maximising engagement on their platform.

Human beings are motivated primarily by emotion. The drive to action might be informed or even inhibited by reason, but motivation for the overwhelming majority of people is emotional. The neural networks of social media companies have learned to exploit us by showing us things that invoke an emotional response to keep us engaged and involved.

The neural networks of social media do not care about whether the post it shares is true, or whether peoples response is positive or negative. It cares only about the level of engagement. Consequently the posts that go viral are the ones that most effectively trigger our individual emotional responses. Ever wondered why there are so many YouTube videos featuring kittens?

Never before has the information people consume been so heavily determined by pre-existing bias. And so whatever bias people have is reinforced and amplified. The groups people join agree with their point of view. The posts in these groups will do better when the cause engagement, whether or not the posts are actually positive.

Sadly we see this first hand in the forums we manage. Posts which cause anger and division flourish while those trying to create unanimity and community flounder. This isn’t because the people are without compassion, but because the algorithm itself is preying on the division. Externally we have seen the rise of the anti-vaccination movement and flat earth belief almost exclusively thanks to the power of these Engagement Maximisers.

The argument from the platform operators would be that they are only giving people what they want to see. The problem is that humans are a learning neural network as well. The information they are shown is training them. That is why advertisers are paying money after all; to influence people. The combination of Engagement Maximiser and learning humans is a positive feedback cycle that drives people toward the extremes. This is the phenomenon we experience today on social media.

We have seen divisions even within progressives, with some calling for increasingly restrictive censorship of social media. Advertisers have forced YouTube to restrict advertising no non controversial material, meaning the livelihoods of creators that cover issues like homosexuality and politics have been affected. Increasingly different views have been polarised to the extent they refuse to hold discourse. The effect has not been to eradicate hate, but rather push it out to dark corners where it was able to fester.

In March that festering boil exploded in Christchurch. The casualties were not virtual. From all over New Zealand we saw a new kind of viral communication, this time not driven by algorithms but rather genuine human empathy for those who have had their loved ones taken from them. How can any human fail to have compassion for the victims of such a senseless crime?

There has of course been understandable calls for controls on social media. How can we experience what we have without demanding the causes be addressed?

But perhaps it is necessary to see things more broadly than just the tip of the ice burg. We need to examine whether we really should be giving the Engagement Maximisers the power to influence us. With measles outbreaks around the world perhaps we need to be looking at how the Engagement Maximisers have empowered small inconsequential fringe groups to grow their followings.

Last year we presented to the Unitarians about how we need to be careful in how we teach our AI systems. We need to ensure that human values are incorporated into the neural networks by ensuring that their utility functions include human well being and evidence as well as engagement. Ultimately what this means is that we will need to ensure artificial intelligence is developed in such a way that factors other than engagement are included in the utility functions of artificially intelligent systems. This applies far beyond social media.

Artificial intelligence is now being used to guide judges in sentencing. It is being used to decide who gets a job. It is being used for DNA analysis. We are really only on the cusp of the artificial intelligence revolution yet already questions around ethics and how we incorporate human values into our machines are of vital importance for the health of society.

The Internet and the Death of the Journalistic Ethics

The promise of the Internet was that it would bring the democratisation of news. Suddenly anyone who established a website was a publisher. Newspapers were no longer the gatekeepers of the distribution of world events.

In 1991 we saw the Gulf War from the controlled perspective of embedded reporters showing US warplanes as they clinically dispatched their targets. Twenty year later the Arab Spring saw people challenge their Governments through the use of social media platforms. This indicated a major shift in power, from established news agencies to the Internet.

About the same time there was an advertising revolution, where Google and Facebook began to increasingly absorb advertising dollars, thus eroding the revenue of traditional newspapers. Today you can see the result, where publishers have been forced to lay off journalists. The New Zealand Herald has just moved to a pay model while at the same time touting the fact they will be using articles from other US based newspapers.

While newspapers may have not been totally unbiased we now live in a world where we are flooded with ‘news’, but have very little confidence in it. Due to the declining revenue at newspapers the remaining journalists have increased their workload. We no longer see quality in depth investigative journalism. Usually journalists are happy to simply reword press releases. Sometimes not even that.

With the declining credibility of the established media people have instead used platforms such as YouTube and Google for their information. Sadly the amount of false information on these platforms means we have seen the rise of anti-vaccination campaigns, anti-fluoride, flat earth and numerous others. This has also been a fertile ground for extremists.

Unlike the scientific process social media has no critical peer review. You can publish whatever you like, and if you have a group which is insular and aligned nobody will question it. Where a newspaper would expose you to various points of view along with verified credible facts the Internet isolates you in a Bubble that only reinforces your beliefs.

Our Position

We stand for an open, secular and tolerant society where we are free to hold whatever beliefs we wish alongside the right to express them. While we disagree with theists about their theology we support their right to hold their beliefs, even if they are hateful toward us. We also believe at the same time that public policy should be based on the evidence and should be for the benefit of all rather than specific groups.

Free expression is at the very core of our ethos. The Enlightenment which resulted in an explosion of technology which has delivered the quality of life we see today is based on the idea of free exchange of scientific ideas and the careful examination of those ideas against the evidence. Orthodox ideas must remain open to challenge. In our view shutting down free speech will not eradicate bad ideas but rather send them into the darkness only to fester and grow. The light of open dialogue on the other hand is disinfectant to bad ideas. While we endorse provisions around unlawful speech that incites hatred and violence we strong oppose the erosion of free speech protections for controversial or offensive speech.