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12 Oct 2022, 1200 hrs

Balancing Free Speech and Political Correctness on Social Media

While political correctness aims to protect the human and civic rights of particular groups within society, it has also been seen as a politicised weapon to silence and cancel opposing ideas. In an age where a social media post could unintentionally lead to career-ending consequences and social suicide, has PC culture led to over-censorship? At what point does society’s focus on political correctness infringe on free speech? How can we distinguish between controversial ideas and malicious bigotry, and what is the best way to strike the balance?

Panelists from India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Germany got together to discuss the need and means to balance free speech and political correctness on social media at the second Asian Conference for Political Communication (ACPC) held in Singapore on 12 October, 2022.

The panelists shared their thoughts on whether too much political correctness infringes on free speech and to what extent. 

Katharina Naumann, moderator of the panel and coordinator of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) media programmes in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Europe, said the focus was on “how to balance having an opinion and promoting open discussion without shutting people down”.

Ms Naumann described political correctness as a code or a set of rules which are unwritten but that have now led to uncertainty about what can and cannot be said. 

“The history of political correctness is that it started with students in California complaining that their reading lists are not diverse enough,” Naumann said.

“They complained that only philosophers from the enlightenment period were on it and they demanded more female and non-European philosophers, that’s how the conversation started about being more inclusive and that’s what political correctness is all about,” she added.

“There is no such thing as 100 per cent free speech. Ideally in a free world there should be 100 per cent freedom of speech and expression but almost every country, every society has restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, which should be reasonable,” Kapil Parmar, the national head of social media & IT of the youth wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Veteran Indonesian journalist Endy Bayuni, who is also a part of the inaugural independent Oversight Board for Facebook, added that the board believes that free speech is paramount but that safety, dignity, authenticity and privacy must also be upheld and promoted. 

He mentioned the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 19, adding that the board looks at the “least intrusive” ways to remove speech.

Endy mentioned that the board had overruled 20 decisions of Meta on content moderation and sustained just eight decisions out of a total of 28. He also added that algorithms present a problem because they end up promoting violence, bullying and hate.

“The best antidote to hate speech is counter-speech for which we have to rely on professional, mainstream, good faith media, ” Professor Cherian George from the Hong Kong Baptist University said.

Nowadays, the “power of agenda setting has shifted to the user of the digital media,” said Valerie Scholz, Co-Founder & CCO at Facts for Friends.

“Now we often see the topics on social media have been picked up by the news afterwards. The journalistic norm of objectivity is no longer the standard”.

She added that debates around political correctness, however, “distract from the issue at hand and get us nowhere with the current socio debates of the time”. 

“They often result in an ‘us versus them’ mentality, where neither side is able to view the other as having anything to say worthy of importance,” she said.

“In short: Debates about genuinely important and meaningful social discourses end up as emotionally charged pseudo-debates,” she said.

The second ACPC was the biggest gathering of communication experts in academia, politics and government in Asia and the Pacific, bringing together over 200 participants from over 40 countries.

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Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia
Bharatiya Janata Party - Youth Wing, India
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Germany
Facts for Friends, Germany