Mill on the Blogosphere

December 13, 2011

Political Theory


How meta–a blog post about blogging. The appeal of writing for blogs, whether it is a personal blog, political blog, corporate/organizational blog, Tumblr, WordPress, or something else, is based on the fact that blogs are raw, unedited, and NOW. The urgency and immediacy that blogs exhibit allows, or rather encourages, people to speak their minds in an uninhibited forum. This characteristic causes blogging to be cathartic for some, informational for others, and seemingly beneficial for all who contribute. Those who are blogged about, however, might argue otherwise.

A recent article from the New York Times¬†discusses a case in which a blogger was nailed with a $2.5million defamation award by a businessman after a judge refused to give her standing as a journalist. While the case initially sounded unfair to me, that a blogger of substantial credibility would not be held to the same standards as a journalist, the way in which she was using the blog turned out to be libel. This was not just another case of a wealthy businessman using the courts to silence a critic. On the surface, it seemed as though the blogger’s investigative approach to blogging was to the benefit of the people, none of her reports were actually based in factual evidence. The blogger took her personal (negative) feelings towards a lawyer appointed to a real estate agency’s bankruptcy case and falsely accused him of several unethical business practices. So the question here is not exactly whether a blogger’s work is legitimate enough to be deemed journalistic work, but rather whether the content material of the blog should be limited due to its effects on the lives of others.

In Mill’s work, On Liberty, he discusses the arguments for the freedom of thought and discussion. The limits of free speech, however, are not clearly defined, except for this one ambiguous statement:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

In the case of the above defamation suit, I would argue that slanderous and libel cases fit under this limitation of freedom of speech. When someone makes a false, negative remark about another person or organization, especially one that negatively affects their livelihood, they should be punished. The structure of the blogosphere, however, is often not conducive to limitations; as said earlier, the one of the blogosphere’s benefits to society is that it remains largely unregulated. After discussing the freedom of speech from an epistemological standpoint, it is clear that Mill would approve of blogging as a mode of communication in this regard, as we will know more from the abundance of opinions present across the blogosphere. How, then, do we construct social norms that discourage bloggers from libel and encourage bloggers to report what is true?

I believe that this is where commenting and “likes” and reposting come into play. The way in which we respond to, and subsequently verify, certain posts is by adding content to them and by sharing them with others. We create content to be used as “votes” saying whether we agree or disagree with information being put out onto the web, thus “electing” the best to rise to the top, while content that seems to not fit with our idea of what is right is dropped. So get out there and share your thoughts!

What do you think? What would Mill think? How is the blogosphere affected by the freedom of speech–either positively or negatively?

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2 Comments on “Mill on the Blogosphere”

  1. luniho Says:

    I think that Mill provides a great way in which to analyzes cases of modern free speech. Slander and libel, obviously, are not to be tolerated; however, it’s extremely difficult to provide guidelines for speech that may and may not be tolerated.

    Mill would likely be a supporter of our culture’s obsession with discussion and blogging. This yields a wide display of opinions and thoughts, which enable mankind as a whole to continually improve. Most of these bloggers hope to improve the lives of their readers, often exposing them to articles, video and images that they might not have discovered otherwise. However, cases such as that mentioned in this post wouldn’t be supported by Mill. Slander certainly qualifies as a harmful offense.

    Over time, bloggers like this one will be discovered to be false in nature. Readers will not turn to them for information, rather finding a less biased source. Urging net-savvy individuals to analyze their sources will help to cut down on this inaccurate negativity. Ideally, over time, those individuals that seek to uncover truth and expose it via their personal sites will be forced into factual grounds.

  2. hannahlevitt Says:

    I agree that Mill would say that the statements against the lawyer are harming the lawyer and thus can be limited. Mill is a huge proponent of free speech, and this clause about harm one of the rare times he suggests any limitations. Libel and slander can definitely harm someone no matter what form of media the libel/slander is conducted through. Therefore, the exact same laws about freedom of speech and press should apply to internet, but the exact same laws about libel and slander should apply as well. Blogging is the journalism of the 21st century and in order to preserve higher-quality journalism over nonsense is by regulating it the same way the press is regulated.

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