In the age of social media, the boundary between what is in the public realm and what is in the private realm is getting blurred with serious consequences.
A 20-year, award-winning career with CNN ended for journalist Octavia Nasr July 7 when she was fired for airing a thought deemed inappropriate by her employers.
The controversial product of her brain appeared in the public realm via Twitter, and was related to the death of Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadallah. Nasr Tweeted: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I admired a lot.”
The Tweet is now deleted, but Nasr later indicated her regret in a blog post, and said that her admiration was inspired by the Shiite cleric’s stance on women’s rights.
Fadallah had long expressed anti-American sentiment, and was linked to bombings in which more than 260 U.S. citizens were killed.
The issues surrounding freedom of speech and the ideal of journalists acting as unbiased purveyors of news that this story raises are hardly new. However, the use of social media adds a contemporary twist to the debate.
A human being’s thoughts are the ultimate example of a private commodity. Thanks to social media, they can now be instantly and globally communicated. In theory, this instantaneousness has upended the private realm, and has facilitated an individual’s freedom of expression. It also highlights the debate surrounding the limits of freedom of speech that is as old as the agoras of ancient Greece.
Does the way social media blurs public and private life add an extra weight to our thoughts and actions? What implications does it have for journalists in particular, and citizens in general? Should journalists, or even employees of both private and public firms, have limitations placed on their right to freedom of expression?
Of course, considering the great disparities that remain in terms of global internet access, these questions are purely academic for the majority of the world’s residents.
Nevertheless, the excitement over this vast realm of instant information has clouded the theoretical debate relating to freedom of speech. As a result, the ethical issues are still being worked out, and the number of fired journalists and shamed citizens gets larger and larger. Witness the end of Helen Thomas’s long career after she commented on the political status of Jews in a privately recorded conversation, and the firing of the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel and MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield.
In Canada, there are fewer high profile cases, but perhaps one can draw a parallel with the federal government’s code of conduct for its employees as it relates to public expression of opinion, an issue that is increasingly salient as more people write blogs, contribute to message boards, and Tweet. (In brief, the code of conduct places some loose restrictions on partisan participation in one’s private life in order to eliminate perceived conflict of interest.)
With this environment in mind, it is instructive to turn to the writings of Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and slight Luddite, who attempted to parse out the division between one’s private and public existence in the world.
The internet wasn’t around when Arendt was alive, but her dubious and skeptical observations on modernity and technology retain their relevance. In describing the modern world, Arendt divided it into the public and private realms. The private realm was where physical activities necessary for survival occurred, as well as one’s thoughts and quintessentially human emotions such as pain and love. The public realm was where human beings affirmed their existence, defined themselves, and engaged in politics, which for Arendt was the ultimate expression of humanity and its communal nature.
In Arendt’s opinion, the division between the two realms was already eroding with the invention of modern technology and automation. However, the public realm was what could always save the human race, and Arendt would be loathe to ever place limitations on speech.
But what would Arendt, with her clear demarcation between the public and private realms, have to say about the current messy and blurred environment that has been created by the internet and social media? The lack of demarcation is exciting and unprecedented, to be sure, but what does it mean for individual freedom of speech and responsibility? How will culture and politics be affected as the line between the public and private realms continues to shift and perhaps even disappear?
It is still unclear, of course, but hopefully people will be more inclined to engage in discussion than firing one another for exercising their ultimate freedom.