The New Peril of the Digital Age: The Internet as a Source for Abrupt Normative Change
Looking specifically at China, I argue that societies are vulnerable to sudden, short-lived yet large-scale changes in societal values as a result of unexpected normative shifts in online communication. The volume and rapidity of online communication renders it technologically impossible to perfectly police the Internet. Thus, in order to maintain control over the public conversation, many governments rely on Internet users to police themselves in the form of self-regulation. Indeed, such governments have shown themselves quite adept at cultivating cultures of self-censorship. Law is instrumental in achieving this—legal ambiguity regarding what constitutes impermissible speech and fear of legal prosecution for crossing this line fosters norms of online self-censorship. This reliance on self-regulation, however, renders these norms susceptible to shocks.
Building on the concept of information cascades in the behavioral economics literature, I posit a concept I term cyberspeech cascades, the idea being that public understanding of what constitutes impermissible speech may change abruptly, sparking bandwagons of uncensored speech. In its simplified form, the model is as such: each act of unregulated speech online slightly alters perceptions, which in turn encourages more internet users to join the strengthening bandwagon, creating a snowball effect as mass perceptions regarding the acceptable limits of public expression shift. Bandwagons of progressively more brazen speech eventually proliferate into large-scale torrents of uncensored speech, triggering the temporary (or permanent) collapse of self-censorship norms. The unique viral nature of Internet communication and the reliance on self-regulation create the potential to produce massive sudden shifts in norms related to online speech.
Given the growing importance and proliferation of online communication in modern society, the potential for sudden large-scale shifts in societal values should command serious attention. Online speech can be controlled, but this control is not nearly as robust as many would have us believe. Norms of self-censorship are fragile—they rest primarily upon perceptions, and perceptions can change with astonishing speed.
Professor Bryan Druzin is a legal theorist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law. His work explores the bottom-up emergence of legal order and ways policymakers can exploit this dynamic. Dr. Druzin has published extensively with leading U.S. law schools (Duke, Cornell, Harvard, Northwestern, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, etc.), top international peer-reviewed journals, and has contributed to several edited volumes published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. Dr. Druzin holds a B.A., LL.B., and LL.M. from the University of British Columbia and a PhD in law from King’s College London. He teaches jurisprudence and contract law, and has previously taught at Brunel University and King’s College London. Dr. Druzin’s current research explores whether it is possible to accelerate the emergence of global governance by harnessing the mechanics of self-organization. Dr. Druzin is a frequent speaker at legal forums around the world, and is regularly interviewed by international media on issues related to his scholarship.
Time: 7 June 2019, 11:00-12:00
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