Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental rights of human beings. It is established in various laws and it was among the first amendments made to the United States Constitution. The freedom of speech is secured by several international laws, such as United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Article 10), European Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 11), as well as national laws. It is Article 100 of Satversme (the Constitution) of the Republic of Latvia that secures respective right in Latvia: «Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to freely receive, keep and distribute information and to express his or her views. Censorship is prohibited.»
Freedom is attributed to both verbal and non-verbal expression —it can be voiced, as well as expressed through visual arts; similarly, the value of the opinion is not limited— it can be meaningful, as well as banal. Freedom of artistic expression is an extension to the freedom of speech, and it is believed that a combination of both ensured advancement and progress of the society. The European Court of Human Rights has recognized that freedom of expression «constitutes one of the essential foundations of [democratic] society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man.» (ECHR decision in case Handyside v United Kingdom. 5493/72, 07.12.1976, 48 paragraph; ECHR decision in case Lingens v. Austria. 9815/82,08.07.1986. 41 paragraph, cit. Gulbis, 2019).
Freedom of speech applies equally to the private and public domain. It can be a loud manifestation of opinion that is heard by thousands and change the world, as was Martin Luther King’s (1963) iconic speech I have a dream that called to end racism in the US and that was delivered to approximately 250 000 people and many more who heard it broadcasted. It can be a simple statement at a dinner table by a housewife who is ignored for years and years by other family members as it is in play Acapulco Madame by Yves Jamiacuq that I had a chance to see recently at Valmiera Drama Theatre. Both statements, in the end, caused turmoil and triggered changes, of course, of different levels—(inter)national and personal.
People have expressed themselves from the beginning of times—on cave walls, in hand-written letters and nowadays on the Internet that Ignacio Ramonet has named to be the «fifth power» (cf. Wikipedia, 2019). Today, people can access information almost anytime, anywhere and on any subject, even more—they can create content in the same manner. Content creationis the subject that I would like to reflect on in this essay because it is a form of exercising one of the humans’ basic rights. As one of the fundamental rights, it should be natural and easily understandable but means and environments where it is exercised have made the concept rather complicated, especially nowadays.
Years ago, before the Internet era started, one could get published after their work had been scrutinized by an editor. Pieces written by journalists, reporters, writers and other professionals had —and luckily most of the time still have— to undergo proofreading and editing phase where grammar, style, and content is reviewed, assuming that the information is meant for publishing in the classical media. In a healthy democratic society, it is not for the censorship purposes but serves to ensure a better quality of the piece and make sure that the message will be perceived by the public as it is meant. Today, however, anyone can be (and often without being aware of it actually is) a content creator. The fact that the scope does not matter (meaning whether the content reaches masses or a single individual; whether it is a public or private statement) makes literally everyone exercising the freedom of speech and being content creators.
We all write text messages, e-mails, some still write notes by hand, we communicate verbally and those who are active users of social media make announcements (textual and visual) there. An immense amount of information is being created every second and all people contribute to it. By writing this essay I do it too. Irrespective of whether it is read by just a few (hopefully at least two persons, I included) it exists. My essay was not originally written to be proofread or edited by anyone but me, and therefore I had to bear full responsibility for its quality and content. Characteristics of the social media determine that posts are individual’s responsibility and have a single author (profiles or companies or organisations being an exclusion), while in the academic world single authorship is rather uncommon. Nevertheless, there are some aspects in the content creation that make single authorship disputable, address ethical issues and pose a question whether the freedom of speech is exercised at its best.
A few years ago, I found out that a granddaughter of my mom’s friend has her YouTubechannel and is a YouTuber. She was approximately 14 years old at that time. I looked through some of her videos and I had to admit that for a teenager they were of good technological quality (I don’t have that much technical knowledge in editing), some were really funny and I was surprised that a young person is willing to make so much effort in video-making. Actually, the profile had a few thousand followers at that time. Some time ago I revisited the profile out of the curiosity to find out whether it is still active. To my surprise, I discovered that the teenage girl had become a young lady and just turned 18, her YouTubevideos had become rarer, but longer and topics—more complicated and interactive so to say. The profile I am describing can be found under name Laurlācis (2019) and it has 48 thousand followers which equal to all inhabitants of Valmiera taken twice, or half of Tartu population. Videos taken at the beginning of Laurlācis YouTubingcareer depict such topics as «my morning routine», funny life hacks, looking through childhood photos and commenting them and many more subjects. As the number of channel’s followers grew and there were more comments to the posts, feedback and reactions, the videos gradually became more interactive. For example, in the early channel posts, there are a couple of videos where Laurlācis answers the comments of haters or problem questions posed by others. Through these question-and-answer sessions where followers get involved, they actually become co-authors of the content.
With the time, the influence of viewers increases, and the YouTubermakes followers vote on what subject the upcoming video should be. Even more than that—channel fans determine the actions of the author. There is a video in which Laurlācis day is fully determined by the votes of other Instagramusers. She makes followers vote and chose what they want her to do: to get up at 3:00 AM or 1:00 PM; to sing in the shower or have an ice bucket challenge; to wear black only or get dressed in all rainbow colours; to make a tattoo or a piercing; to write indecent message to her granny or a random guy; to go to gym and eat healthy food or have a mukbang (I had to find out that it is «a live stream of a host who binge-eats large quantities of food as they talk to their audience»). The video is named «Instagram controls my day or how many errors can be made during a single day?» With the increasing participation of others, the channel host is not the only author anymore, instead the content is created by many.
One the one hand, some spectators exercise their right of expression and expect it to be respected, but on the other, there is a YouTuberwho transforms followers’ answers into actions and use them for artistic purposes. In such situations, when people are allowed to vote they are aware that they have power over the YouTuber’sactions, and the content created later, thus the relationships are in a way regulated by business rules. However, there are situations when people do not realize for what purposes content created by them (messages or posts in social media) will serve and they have no idea in what their freedom of expression will be turned into. The next paragraph will look at such cases.
Among videos created by Laurlācis, there are several examples where other people have become co-authors without their knowledge about that. Let us examine closer some instances. Laurlācis and her friends swap their phones for a certain period in which they are allowed to use other’s phone as they want. They write funny and weird messages to friends and acquaintances of each other, post on walls on Facebookand make announcements in group chats.
Another video shows how Laurlācis has created an Instagram account for a friend (without her permission) in order to «find the love of her life». The profile is fake but uses real pictures of the other girl, she chats with real persons and the chat is revealed to the public and becomes the main subject of discussion. Those guys with whom Laurlācis chatted on behalf of her friend had no idea that their messages will be made public. They thought they were writing to somebody privately, but in the end, they addressed some 50 000 viewers. Without being aware of that, they have contributed to the content creation process and shaped the end-product.
Yet another example is a video in which Laurlācis reads out loud Instagramstories, that she finds silly, written by others. Indeed, those stories make little sense, but it is another thing. What is important is that those Instagramstories get somewhat republished. Of course, in this case, authors had already made the stories public and they have had certain considerations behind such action, however, what they probably did not expect is that somebody will analyse and even ridicule their work publicly. Laurlācis is not the only author of her video, maybe even not the most important one because without the source she would not be able to create such content at all.
I wonder, isn’t the freedom of speech infringed for those whose messages, that initially were meant for private use, were made public? Clearly, they did not seek for popularity and addressing masses but in the end, they got all of it, including co-authorship. Papacharissi (2015) speaks about collective storytelling and co-creation, however more from citizen journalism, which means that anyone can report on important events through their mobile devices. Our storytelling case is different—it is meant for entertainment and self–presentation purposes. If the self-presentation aspect is put before everything else, it is a dangerous path where everything else is discarded, ethical issues being among them. There is a difference whether you hoax someone privately or publicly, as well as the consequences differ. In face-to-face communication it is just you and your opponent, a limited number of people or a specific circle of persons, whereas a hoax played in the web has no limits because anyone can be the public. As stated in the opening paragraph—the scope at which the freedom of speech is exercised does not matter; it is equally strong in private and public, meaning it must be true in both environments. Is it the case? I doubt it.
As to digital media ethics, Bowen (2013) has proposed 15 ethical guidelines that have been developed after examination of four different cases. Among other points Bowen calls to establish responsibility and encourage the good and answer respective questions, for example, does the message help to build connectedness, engagement and community. Young people who are very advanced in the use of technologies should also be called to consider ethical aspects of their activities online, in order to ensure that the digital divide between generations does not prevent from getting along in the future. There is a great risk that divide will be not only technological but also psychological. Freedom of speech is an opportunity, it is also a gift, but I dare to say that is not everything. I do admire the skills young content creators have developed in their relatively short careers, but at the same time, I hope that their social and emotional skills are equally well developed. We have to face the real, physical world, encounter people as they are not as imagined. For that, I think, Plato’s virtues —wisdom, courage, moderation and justice— are more useful.
Bowen, S.A. (2013). Using classic social media cases to distill ethical guidelines for digital engagement. Journal of Mass Media Ethics (28), 119-133. Retrieved on 16 February 2020 from: https://www.deirdrebreakenridge.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/JMME_Bowen_2013_SM_Ethics.pdf.
Gulbis, R. (2019). Presentation in study course Media and Communication Law. Valmiera: Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences.
King, M.L. (1963). «I have a dream», address delivered at the march on Washington for jobs and freedom. Stanford University. Retrieved on 16 February 2020 from: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom.
Laurlācis (2019). Laurlācis YouTube channel. YouTube. Retrieved on 16 February 2020 from: https://www.youtube.com/user/UnicornQueeny.
Papacharissi, Z. (2015). Affective publics and structures of storytelling: sentiment, events and mediality. Information, Communication and Society (19), 307-324. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1109697.
Wikipedia (2019). Fifth power. Retrieved on 16 February 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_power.
Māra Maurāne is the coordinator of Engineering and IT Studies in the Faculty of Engineering and master’s student in Media and Information Literacy at Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences, Valmiera, Latvia.