Social Media, Blasphemy, and Protecting People from Speech

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The norms of communication on social media are evolving quickly. In the first death penalty case involving social media, a court in Pakistan has sentenced a man to death for blasphemy. Though Taimoor Raza still has appeals remaining that he can avail himself of, this verdict has come days after a college professor was refused bail on charges of blasphemy; the attitude of the state towards such online offenses seems clear.

Most societies censor speech to some extent. Freedom of thought and expression is important, but most laypeople and theorists are comfortable with the principle that we should weigh the importance of protecting the right to freedom of thought and expression against the rights of those that could be harmed by the expression of the protected right. Consider cases of threats, harassment, bullying and abuse, not to mention the go-to example of yelling “fire” in a public theater, meant to stand-in for circumstances where speech can be dangerous (though of course, things are more complicated than that). For Raza, using social media to express his blasphemous views has led to his inclusion in a new category of speakers that are being censored.

Because social media has made it easier to communicate to a broader audience and is continually pushing on the bounds of privacy, evaluating the impact of speech or expression has become more difficult. The ways in which someone can express themselves is changing, as are the ways that someone can consume those speech acts. One trenchant problem is cyberbullying, doxing, and online harassment, which has led to serious problems in the US and internationally.

A major reason for this is the anonymity of the internet and the social spheres we can enter. Freed from the social pressures that remind us of one another’s humanity and inherent personhood, the isolation and separateness can bring out hostility and aggression that they would not display in face-to-face interactions. Anonymity provides freedom that has led to novel forms of censorship.  

In response to the troubling rise in cyberbullying in South Korea (in 2007, over 200,000 cases of cyberbullying were reported, and the number of suicides attributed to online rumors and abusive behavior experienced a sharp increase), the South Korean government implemented a controversial policy that websites receiving more than 100,000 visitors a day must use resident registration numbers to track the content users post.

In 2012 South Korea ended the controversial law, which critics said did little to stop the tide of online abuse and harassment. There were easy-to-find loopholes to the law, and many people simply used the non-Korean versions of sites to avoid having their comments linked to their resident registration number. The attempt to protect the citizens from the harm of speech on the internet was ineffective, and the censoring law was abandoned.

In cases of blasphemy, as with Taimoor Raza, a speaker isn’t being charged with bullying, but the form of the offense is similar – in expressing himself he is taken to be harming society. With expressions of libel, cruel rumors, and harassment, societies have attempted to put pressures on available methods of speech in order to protect potential victims. In the west, the distinction between blasphemy and harassment seems to be significant. The importance of preserving freedom of thought – and thus being able to endorse criticism of a regime or religious order to which the majority subscribe – trumps concerns surrounding the harms blaspheming against the majority held views.

Earlier in 2017, a blasphemy prosecution began in Ireland against comedian, activist, and writer Stephen Fry. Years ago, Fry didn’t mince words when asked about his opinion of God, characterizing him as selfish, stupid and “quite clearly a maniac” in a television interview. The prosecution was dropped because no harmed parties were identified, a crucial difference in the mindset behind the blasphemy in Ireland and Pakistan.

The freedom of expression that the internet, especially in its potential for anonymity, is problematic, but so is a state-monitored censorship. Voluntary verification for particular interactions seems to be one possible solution. This doesn’t answer all of the questions of value that anonymous forums provides, and as the case of Taimoor Raza brings out, not all speech relating to social media is anonymous. The pressure on the distinction between public and private spheres of discourse, and the protection of the right to freedom of thought and expression, will only become more complex as we become more engaged online, with more societal values competing. The focus on who, if anyone, is harmed seems like a good place to focus our thinking going forward.

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Meredith is the Uihlein Fellow of Ethics at Lawrence University. She earned her PhD at the University of California, Riverside with a research focus in Philosophy of Action and Practical Reasoning. She is interested in biomedical ethics, ethics of technology, philosophy of law, and normativity.