Distinguished philosopher Professor Sir Richard Sorabji re-enters the fray on free speech and social media

30 October 2019

Distinguished philosopher Professor Sir Richard Sorabji re-entered the free speech debate in a lecture for the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society at Wolfson College last night by reprising his 2015 lecture on the theme with a renewed focus on fake news and social media.

Adopting his characteristically sweeping analysis that encompassed developments in philosophical thought on free speech throughout the centuries and across cultures, he framed his argument in relation to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle in which truth emerges through exposure to opposing views.

Professor Sorabji, who was knighted in 2014 for services to philosophy, argued that this example of ‘good speech’ is antithetical to social media discourse, with its ‘echo chamber’ effect of presenting to users content with which they are likely to already be socially and politically aligned.

Turning to Facebook as the paradigmatic social media company, Professor Sorabji cited a report published last year by UN human rights experts that accused Facebook of having played a role in spreading hate speech in the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

He acknowledged the enormous complexity of moderating harmful content given the scale and speed of content creation on its platform, but argued that "the current system is completely out of control”. Instead, he posed the ethical question: Should we allow artificial intelligence (AI) to moderate content, or should such complex, subjective judgments only be performed by humans?

Professor Sorabji concluded his analysis by outlining four principal objections to the current situation of little or only very ‘light-touch’ regulation of social media:

1) The ‘echo chamber effect’ created by social media algorithms is hugely detrimental to the electoral process;

2) The excessive revenues of social media companies make them impervious to fines imposed by regulators;

3) Privacy violations are increasingly commonplace;

4) Social media companies are failing to protect users from exposure to hate speech and violent content.

By way of solutions, he cautiously proposed that new legislation is needed to stop the most heinous distortions of the electoral process through the sale of social media profiles to political propagandists, and that social media executives such as Mark Zuckerberg should be held personally liable for harms caused by their platforms.