The Future of Free Speech

Plenary Sessions

Chair: Prof. Bertrand Badie

Plenary Speaker: Suzanne Nossel

The guarantee of free speech is critical to any well-functioning democracy and yet, a slew of challenges loom for free expression globally. Chief among these contemporary threats are authoritarianism, political polarization, and the weaponization of hateful speech online. Today, a rising tide of authoritarianism has coincided with efforts to stifle domestic dissent and undercut free press in countries around the world. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of difficult-to-regulate social media platforms has facilitated the amplification of mendacious and hateful speech while making it more difficult to establish and enforce protections for online speech.  Menacing forms of online content like fraudulent news and disinformation proliferate to skew discourse, sow divisions and even throw elections. In order to safeguard free expression globally, it is crucial to understand new forums for speech, new threats to it, and race to defend it, even when that means rising in support of speech from which we personally dissent.  This talk will focus on the major threats to free speech and what it will take to address them.

Questions & Answers:

  • Dr. Asha Gupta: "In your opinion, what is more important - human rights or right to be human? Can we call the people living below the poverty line as homeless, and the wretched on earth (to use Fanon's expression), be called human?"
    • "Yes, we do consider economic and social rights to be human rights.  They are recognized under international law and, increasingly, in U.S. law as well.  I do not believe it is possible to enjoy civil and political rights without a decent standard of living, health care, food and other basic needs met.  The mandate of PEN America focuses on the right to freedom of expression, which is our area of expertise.  We collaborate with other groups that focus on economic and social rights."
  • Dr. Keith Lund: "On the subject of free speech, can artificial intelligence help distinguish truth from falsehoods? If not, is there any hope for the ability of individuals and organizations to make the distinction?"
    • "I am skeptical about the ability of artificial intelligence to discern the difference between truth and determined falsehood, in that it is in the nature of falsehood to aim to deceive and to circumvent the means of detection, be that human judgement or automated systems.  So my fear is that even if we develop technologies to detect falsehoods, those perpetrating the ruses will only become more sophisticated.  Automation can flag certain kinds of suspicious posts.  For example, on social media automated systems are good at discerning coordinated inauthentic activity - so the role of bots and fake accounts that interact in ways that are distinct from normal human patterns of activity.  Detecting coordinated inauthentic activity can offer a lead to find those who are propagating disinformation or otherwise trying to deceive and distort public debate."