One of the coolest things about the internet is that, in 2016, more people globally are able to communicate with one another than at any other time in recorded history. The International Telecommunications Union estimated that in 2015, there were approximately 3.2 billion unique internet users worldwide, including those in both developing and least developed nations.
While there are a handful of governments that try to block and regulate what their people can see and say on the internet, all it takes is a simple VPN and just about anyone can bypass those restrictions. Free speech is a great thing. Everyone should have the legal right to say whatever they want without fear of legal prosecution, as long as what they’re saying doesn’t affect the immediate safety of someone else.
There are many people, however, who don’t understand what exactly free speech really is, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
I don’t mean that in a “what an uncultured bunch of heathens” kind of way (though, if you’ve ever read YouTube comments, you know that may be true). When I say that the internet has no culture, I mean that there is no one set culture for users of the internet. It’s a place where people from thousands of different cultures and subcultures can come together, for good and bad.
Many people grow up in a homogeneous society, and may have never experienced people who have a different culture than them. It can be a scary thing for some people, and for some, that causes them to withdraw, and for some others, it results in fear and anger. Despite how it’s often used in popular culture, xenophobia isn’t necessarily about being hateful towards people you don’t like. For some people, there is a very real fear of what they don’t know. Unfortunately, that can often result in the hate and anger that we all know too well.
One of the most interesting phenomena that seems to happen is that people view Free Speech (or as Reddit would say, “but MUH FREEZE PEACH!”) as being some magical thing that gives you the right to say whatever you want without any kind of repercussion whatsoever. It’s as if it’s some magic cheat code that makes you invincible. What people don’t seem to realize, though, is that Free Speech means that nobody can stop you from saying what you want to say.
The thing about freedom is… if you have it, so do those around you. People around you have the right to share your racist propaganda with your employer. People around you have the right to relay your comments to 3.2 billion people on the internet. People around you have the right to disagree, and sometimes, if the people who disagree with you, have authority over you, they also have the right to reprimand you.
I’m an admin in the largest WordPress-related facebook group and then I admin 2 more within the top 10 largest. One of the things that I find to be very fascinating is that a question will be asked, and immediately, people will respond. That’s not what I find fascinating, with 20,000 people, there are ALWAYS at least a few people online. What’s so fascinating is that, often, someone in there is giving terrible advice. As an admin, I sometimes have to go in and delete an answer, because it’s so wrong that the bad advice will be detrimental to the person asking the question. But what I don’t delete is the opinions, because, even though they may be wrong and at odds with facts and logic, you are still entitled to them.
My one caveat to those who are sharing their opinions, or reading the opinions of others, is to realize that opinions are not fact. If you’re asking for advice, and 20 people give the same answer, and one person gives a different one, I would at least evaluate it first. Sometimes, the different thinker is a visionary, but plenty of times, they’re just an idiot who just likes to see pretty letters show up on the screen when they press the clicky things below their hands on the desk.
I’m saying this because in 2016 more people than ever are able to share information with each other. We have a unique and amazing opportunity to spread knowledge to places that have historically been cut off from the rest of the world. We can’t control what other people post on the internet. Even YouTube can’t control the cesspool that is their comments sections.
If you’re reading this, on The WP Crowd’s website, then that means that you probably use WordPress. You probably put content out into the world. I encourage you to not take that lightly. I encourage you to consider that your Free Speech also gives you the ability to share great things with the world. I encourage you to take this opportunity to teach the world. If you’ve been wanting to write a tutorial – DO IT! If you’ve been wanting to start a simple blog about how to deal with anxiety – DO IT! But if you’re planning to use your Free Speech today to go and troll someone, or you’re planning to spend the whole day sharing hateful things on your facebook feed about people you disagree with, I would ask you to reconsider.
When 3.2 billion people have Free Speech and the internet access to exercise that right, the opportunity for greatness or disaster is within each of our hands.