Freedom, Truth, Democracy : a brief ethical consideration about censorship

by Deborah Liebart (first appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum); DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2605415

Facing external and internal threats, Western societies have been operating for a few years already a protectionist security shift: camera surveillance, geolocation of individuals, tracking on social networks… By adopting the text of 13 March 2019, concerning the « European Parliament recommendation of 13 March 2019 to the Council and the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy concerning taking stock of the follow-up taken by the EEAS1 two years after the EP report on EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties2« , the European Union poses again with force the question of the censorship and the political and social control in democracy, the degree, the threshold of acceptability of the limitation of the Freedom in our Western and democratic societies, in a context of development of the technological means allowing establish a real traceability of the individuals.

This recommendation, clearly identifying a number of potential and / or proven enemies (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, terrorist groups …), proposes a set of recommendations, as well as a code of good conduct to the member countries of the Union fighting against strategic misinformation and hostile propaganda, (conducted with the aim of destabilizing Western democracies) : fakenews, interference in the European elections, in particular by the use of bots, algorithms, artificial intelligence, trolls, ultra-realistic video fakes … The objective is, « to regulate, together with the Member States, the actions of social media companies, messenger services and search engine providers and ensure their full transparency and, in particular, accountability, adopting an EU‑wide approach, and making it possible to uncover the identity and location not only of the authors, but also of the sponsors of the submitted political content, and to hold the companies to account for the social impact of automated recommendation systems that promote disinformation, stressing that companies have a responsibility to speedily take down systemic fake news; urges Member States, candidate countries and associated countries to adopt effective and clear legislation that ensures the transparency of media ownership; to pay particular attention to the funding, transparency and objectives of NGOs with links to authoritarian states operating in the EU and within its partner countries ». The recommendation proposes “to urge social media companies and messenger service providers to ensure full compliance with EU data protection law and other regulations, and to react in real time and cooperate closely with the competent authorities in all investigations into the alleged use of their platforms for hostile purposes, and to perform transparent audits of entities suspected of spreading misinformation; calls on technology companies to invest more in tools identifying propaganda, in improving online accountability and in ensuring better identity checks of users before joining the respective platforms in order to eliminate botnets, as well in reducing financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation; to urge social media companies to react urgently when suspicious content of a political nature is disseminated, particularly if it incites to hate or crime”.

Is a freedom restricted, controlled, a true freedom ? Is Freedom always better than dogmatism ? Should we impose our ideal on others, a question previously asked by Thomas Aquinas ?

Everytime, after new attacks, citizens, frightened, guided by a feeling of insecurity, accept new security measures hoping to live better, hoping to curb the phenomena of violence. We trade an ever greater share of freedom, because living free is also living in a society guaranteeing conditions of security allowing to live serenely. We are looking for the most perfect social order possible, a society where good, justice, happiness are granted, a project which, even if the methods differ, is a core principle of Plato’s Republic. The text recommends “to link existing national and local specialised centres, news media, think tanks, NGOs and other actors and institutions, in particular NATO, dealing with hybrid warfare into an EU-wide network that would help coordinate their actions and gather their findings; to assign adequate resources to this undertaking; stresses that this network should be open to like-minded partners of the EU, which could share their experiences of being targeted by and countering disinformation and hostile propaganda; to ensure effective and swift implementation of EU-NATO recommendations on countering new types of hybrid threat, also at CSDP level, and to introduce the topic of countering strategic propaganda into the curriculum of the European Security and Defence College and its network”. The EEAS “underlines the importance of a functioning system of public broadcasting, which sets the standard of how to provide impartial and objective information in compliance with the best practice and ethics of journalism”…

Who, to define what is true, what is false, what is right, to define what is manipulation, misinformation, propaganda? Can we label the truth? Is there really an immutable truth or must we concede to the sophists, the fact that there is no absolute truth, but only relative truths that may have their origins in the social, political, economic and cultural context of each people ? In History, we summarize this under the question of « true and false in history », and we train students to address primary and secondary sources, to confront information, to question the written word, to develop continuously critical mind.

The text of the Parliament insists on the need to develop education, by urging « the Member States to invest proactively in educational measures that explain the different ways of producing and disseminating disinformation in order to improve citizens’ ability to detect and respond to disinformation and to « highlight the importance and need for providing funding and education, including seminars and training courses in cooperation with Member States and civil society, such as an online media literacy library and learning centre, aimed at awareness‑raising and tackling disinformation and increasing media literacy ».

Propaganda exists and has existed, wars of disinformation exist and have existed, no one doubts it, nobody questions it, but the question is worth asking: can censorship save democracy? Can we restrict freedom to save it ?

Is freedom negotiable in the name of security … on any scale ?

Two definitions of freedom have always coexisted, positive freedom and negative freedom. The first one is to do everything you want, without restriction. The second one proposes a negative, conditional, Hobbesian3 freedom: the protection of each against each, as Plautus said : »homo homini lupus » (man is a wolf to man).

It is an anthropology based on war and the ethics of fear, based on the fear of consequences in case of wrongdoing. Freedom, then, becomes the possibility of doing all that is permitted by law. We must therefore try to understand what freedom is mobilized in democracy and even more what democracy is. It is a fragile political system, of the people by the people and for the people, which requires calm and which is supported by liberty, a system that feeds on the exchange of ideas and debate. No protection, it disapears, too much protection, it fades, leaving room for possibly authoritarian regimes.

Aristotelian virtue recommends the right measure on the « medium term », and the prudent action that evaluates on a case-by-case basis, without any universal and immutable rule, which makes it possible to recognize the aims and means to achieve the objectives, by deliberating, in opposing opinions, always insisting on the importance of moderation, the finality being for Aristotle to achieve « the good life », self-sufficiency, independence and freedom.

Democracy mobilizes the key concept of general interest by opposing it to individual egoism, an important theme of Rousseau’s thought. It is not a question of the addition of particular wills, it is a common vision of social good, any other solution leading to the law of the strongest and the greatest number, which would set aside general interest in favour of the principle that” might is right”.

According to Rousseau, the common good is not necessarily what the majority wants, the general will arising from a pact allowing the participation of all citizens in the life of the city, in the development of laws. This recommendation raises the question of the epistocracy, this political system of « the word of the expert », which, if it is reassuring and carries meaning and hope when the results are there, leads to serious crises of confidence when failure is at the rendezvous …

Should the people become stoical, and accept what happens without losing heart, in the most complete apatheia ? By restricting freedom, we must be afraid of suffocating the society we want to protect from external threats by puting in question the freedom of the greatest number. In posing the question of Truth, we are faced with philosophical and ethical problems of first order. Worse, we potentially blow on the embers of intolerance, by stoking the movements that we wanted to extinguish… The growing spread of conspiracy theories, the rise of « populist » parties4 that worry Europe … can they be curbed by a Facebook account closure, or the blocking of a Twitter account ?

Does not this offer to the political parties relaying “sickening” theories a magnificent opportunity to present themselves as victims ? That there is a plot, which strengthens them in their speeches and contributes to swell the ranks of the extremists, as illustrated by the mobilization of the concept of « Great replacement » and its use both at the signing of the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle, and during recent events in New Zealand … Providing a possibility of short-term victimization can be dangerous5. Censoring as a way to protect is not a new idea6… One must question what must prevail between intention and action, and be pragmatic in always wondering if « end justifies any means ».

This text, even if it wants to be a defender of civil peace, of people’s right to tranquility, even if it seeks to protect individuals and societies, refers, in its intellectual connection, to the social disciplinary architecture of Bentham Panopticon, imagined at the end of the 18th century. Incarnation of utilitarianism, Bentham ignores metaphysics and transcendental responses by eliminating the « fiction » of the Social Contract, arguing that ethics and politics must be based on the general utility, the interest of the majority, the sum of individual interests. The idea of ​​the Benthamian architecture7 is to place the individuals under the supervision of a guard, placed in a tower overlooking the cells and allowing the supervisor to see all the prisoners without them being able to know if they are observed or no, which creates the feeling of constant, invisible, but omnipresent monitoring… According to Foucault8 the model of a disciplinary society, focused on social control.

It is in the architecture of the manufacture, and factory and in these models of « discipline at work » that Bentham draws the utilitarian idea of ​the political panoptic, which, according to the philosopher, applies to all aspects of life in society9. This theory underlies the creation of workhouses in England and / or the General Hospital in Paris, the idea of ​​making profitable the work of the poor, for the « happiness of the greatest number10 ». It is the idea of ​​making observable at any moment the individual, who no longer knows when he is observed, with the aim of forcing him to a certain « personal reeducation » through the pressure of a potential surveillance, in real time…

Prudence seems appropriate when it comes to accentuate social control and / or create a « Ministry of Truth » to defend itself from external and / or internal threats11 … Prudence, because who can, from an ethical point of view, decide that a law is right ? Is an imperfect law decided by all better than a more perfect law but imposed without informed consent allowing to open the discussion and offering the possibility of modifying it ? Prudence, pragmatism and calm, because fear, unlike reason, is often a bad advisor…

In fine, this reflection should make us reflect about the fallibility, the incompleteness and the uncertainty of governance, and the advantage of a learning and evolving open system over a stable, closed one.

3 Hobbes, T., Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, 1651.

4 There would be a lot to say about populism, its nature, its history and the use of the concept throughout history. C.f., « Manière de voir », #164, avril-mai 2019.

6 Cerf, M., « La censure royale à la fin du dix-huitième siècle », Communications, 9, 1967, EPHE, Paris, Seuil. www.persee.fr/issue/comm_0588-8018_1967_num_9₁

7 Bentham, J., Panopticon, 1780. Brunon-Ernst, A., Le Panoptique des Pauvres. Jeremy Bentham et la réforme de l’assistance en Angleterre, Paris, Presse de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2007. Tusseau, G., « Sur la panoptisme de Jeremy Bentham », Revue Française d’Histoire des idées politiques, 2004/1, n°19.

8 Foucault, M., Surveiller et punir, Paris, Gallimard, 1975.

9 Bentham, J., Chrestomathia, 1815.

10 Liébart, D., Manca, M., La finance et le soin : gouvernance, système mutualiste et répartition du risque, Zenodo, nov. 2017. http://www.disputatiomagistrorum.wordpress.com/2019/02/08/la-finance-et-le-soin-gouvernance-systemes-mutualistes-et-repartition-du-risque/