Freedom of expression is one of the prevailing issues of our time. It is also, perhaps, one of the most contentious. Its role in society is debated from both left- and right-wing perspectives – and nowhere has the issue reared its head more than on social media.
Freedom of expression is enshrined within law as a human right in the UK, the EU, and the US. Freedom of expression and access to information are two sides of the same coin; censorship of expression directly entails restriction of information. Within freedom of expression laws, there are invariably protections for the press and for media. But what for social media platforms and their users?
In the social media age, all internet users can generate content and engage in citizen journalism. But that content is regulated by private corporations. Platforms can remove users whose content infringes their regulations, whether or not that content is illegal.
Billed as an alternative to Twitter, Gab is a social network that positions itself as a champion of free speech "and the free flow of information online". There are some restrictions to user-generated content, though these are limited only to content and activities that are illegal, including terroristic threats and doxing (where a user's personal information is posted online).
Its interface combines Twitter-esque profiles and posts of up to 300 characters with Reddit-style upvoting. The platform also uses a scoring system, which allows users with a score higher than 250 to downvote – or dislike – content; however, users who downvote content must "spend points" to do so.
Dissenter, meanwhile, is a browser extension created by Gab that enables users to comment and engage in discussion on any web page via an overlay, regardless of the original web page's own enablement and/or moderation of comments. While the option for "liking" individual comments has been removed, users can indicate their (dis)approval of the webpage on which they are commenting using a Youtube-like thumbs up/down system.
To its critics, Gab is a bastion of "alt-right" political ideology and a platform for white supremacists. Since its recent release, Dissenter has similarly been dubbed a tool for "hating on journalists" and a "shadow layer" of the internet that fosters far-right discourse.
Some recent research suggested that the rise of the "alt-right" is directly attributable to the algorithms of social media platforms and search engines. That is, platforms are said to deliver search results to those seeking confirmation of beliefs and features that easily connect users with developed beliefs to other "newcomers" that help particular ideologies to grow.
Of course, we know that there is nothing inherent to a technology that determines how it is used. Indeed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey specifically suggested that user practices determine his platform's communicative possibilities. The emergence of online echo chambers and the spread of ideas is applicable to many other social media platforms.
While it is early days for Dissenter, a 2018 study of 22m posts on Gab found that 5.4% of posts contained a "hate word", which is 2.4 times the rate found on Twitter but less than half that found on 4chan's Politically Incorrect board. This measure places it squarely "on the border of mainstream social networks … and fringe web communities".
While the study did not consider the context of the posts under analysis, it seems on the surface that – in an online arena in which freedom of expression prevails – hate speech comprises an arguably small proportion of Gab's content. Of course, this study of communication on Gab raises several questions about the use of language on free speech platforms, including the expression of ideas and ideologies through images (such as memes) and seemingly innocuous catchphrases (such as "learn to code").
Social media and political behaviour
Hate speech or not, freedom of expression and access to information online has implications for political behaviour. Social media platforms have been used in political campaigns for reaching and mobilising voters. Indeed, the potential impact of social media platforms on the political sphere has been demonstrated in the allegations that they were (mis)used to manipulate political campaigns, including Donald Trump's 2016 US presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum.
It stands to reason, then, that Gab/Dissenter could be used in the future in much the same way as Twitter and Facebook: to engage citizens in political action. Its prioritisation of free expression and access to information makes this particularly likely in an age when free speech is hotly contested. If, as Gab's critics say, the platform and its browser extension are paragons of extreme right-wing ideology, some will find this unpalatable. In a (digital) democracy, however, tribalism that segregates political ideologies into distinct communicative arenas may well have its own unpalatable consequences.
Divided political opinion online leads to the formation of echo chambers that reinforce established perspectives and "could push extreme attitudes ever further away from the centre". If Twitter has a leftist bias and Gab/Dissenter continues as the purported home of rightist discussion, both- left and right-wing sympathisers are divided not only by opinion but by platform.
This segregation may disable any opportunity for political compromise through democratic means by creating ideological camps that cannot and do not communicate, radicalising people and politics on both sides. Similarly, it leaves a gap in which the politically undecided may not ever be engaged.
Political theorist Chantal Mouffe suggests that any democracy should "enable the expression of conflict" so that citizens may genuinely choose "between real alternatives"
. This is the same for any digital democracy. The expression of conflict is not possible when political debate is stymied by the separation of communicative platforms.
At present, Dissenter is arguably the only social media platform that enables a true expression of conflict on issues of personal relevance to its users. Of course, it has implications for politics both personal and public. It allows users to engage in meaningful – albeit potentially heated and contentious – debate on any topic with limited censorship.
Prioritising freedom of expression, Dissenter is uniquely placed to deter the formation of echo chambers if – and only if – users of all ideological persuasions engage in conversation and fruitful conflict.
Lexi Webster is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at Lancaster University. This article first appeared in The Conversation.