Harnessing the Internet to Explore and Debate Free Speech
The internet has transformed the conditions for both free speech and for debating free speech, as images, information and ideas – as well as people – move across frontiers. However, until recently there was no single, freely accessible website where users could find case studies, analyses, interviews and discussion pieces relating to the key areas of free speech from all over the world. Enter, then, the FreeSpeechDebate project directed by Professor Timothy Garton Ash of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Anthony’s College. The rationale for the project was to use the possibilities of the internet to promote a well-structured and well-informed debate about what the terms of free speech should be. More than this, it intended to harness digital technology to allow for such contributions to be accessed in multiple languages so that the discussion could be opened up to a greater range of cultures and communities who previously might not have been able to participate in the debate.
Developing the FreeSpeechDebate
The FreeSpeechDebate has helped to develop ten guiding principles which aim to sharpen and structure free speech of the future. These principles include ‘you should respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.’ The majority of principles, discussion pieces and case studies on the website are commissioned from a carefully selected, international cast of academics, journalists and experts in the field (e.g. lawyers). However, there is also an active team of Oxford graduate students who write, edit and translate articles, which makes the site an excellent platform for early career researchers to showcase their academic insights and language skills. All of the texts created for the site aim to stimulate informed discussion on key areas of free speech such as privacy, religion and ‘hate’ speech. Often the contributions are accompanied by images and video content (e.g. interviews), thus providing a multimedia and multifaceted exploration of a topic. Some of these videos have been condensed to make them suitable for classroom use. Efforts are now also under way to offer video content with subtitles in multiple languages.
With some issues – such as the politics behind free speech in Egypt – there is very little information online in English for others to learn from. One of the main innovative aspects of the FreeSpeechDebate is the opportunity for high quality discussion in 13 different languages. A translator is assigned to a piece on the basis of his or her nuanced understanding of the language in use and the country or region in question. Thus, the FreeSpeechDebate can provide international insights on lesser known subject areas in a comprehensive and reliable way. This adds a transcultural element to the site and represents a move away from the longstanding situation where the majority of debate surrounding free speech has taken place in ‘The West’.
The Supporting Technology
The FreeSpeechDebate has been developed in collaboration with some of Britain’s leading web developers using the WordPress platform. It adopts a carefully considered design with: an introduction to the project at the top of the homepage; the list of principles; a ‘What’s missing?’ panel inviting suggestions from readers; a carousel of readers’ comments and a visually striking set of highlighted articles with supporting thumbnails. There is also a versatile search function to allow readers to locate content in multiple, creative ways. For example, they can use an interactive map to search by country.
To support the multilingual dimension of the FreeSpeechDebate (including languages that read from right to left), the web development team created a piece of open source software called Babble. Making this software freely available means that other groups and individuals can create their own multilingual websites and reach out to the public in a similar way.
Readers’ comments can be translated by clicking a ‘translate’ button embedded in the site which takes the user directly to Google Translate.
Creating an Impact
To promote awareness of the project, a launch was held at the Clarendon Laboratory in January 2012 which included an interview between Timothy Garton Ash and Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. The video of this event, now part of the Oxford Podcasts collection, has received over 12,600 views and is one of the most popular items on the site.
Updates on the FreeSpeechDebate in general are disseminated across social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, Webo and YouTube, and the team have found these particularly useful in gaining readers’ feedback on their experiences with the site.
The FreeSpeechDebate has received over 588,000 unique visitors during the two years since its launch, with an average of 30,000 a month. Visitors have accessed it from all parts of the world, including India, China and the Middle East.
To ensure that a connection is maintained between online and offline activities, the project has led a number of live talks, interviews and panels in diverse locations.
The FreeSpeechDebatehas frequently received positive feedback at international conferences, e.g. the recent World Voices Festival in New York. It attracts varied suggestions from its readers, including a request to write on the TV coverage of the trial of Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, coverage which some have perceived as biased.
All of the content is released under a Creative Commons licence, enabling readers to share the materials in a variety of contexts. Many of the articles have been re-posted by The Guardian newspaper and the European e-network of magazines Eurozine. Increasingly, university students and their teachers have posted positive feedback about their use of the content in lessons. In some cases the author of the piece has responded to this feedback.
The next phase of the project, currently under discussion, involves taking the FreeSpeechDebate forward as an online educational resource, adapting the site so that it can be more easily accessed on mobile devices. Plans are also afoot for an academic course (under the auspices of the Department for Continuing Education) and the ability for users to ‘Create your own Workshop’. The initial thinking behind ‘Create your Workshop’ is that any group, in any place and at any educational level, could take extracts of content from the FreeSpeechDebate, put it together and create their own classroom, make their own learning journey or structure their own informal discussion.
Words of Wisdom
Timothy Garton Ash and his team offer the following advice to anyone wishing to do something similar:
‘When planning a digital project, it is important to clarify your purpose. Although there is inevitably some trial and error involved, it is worthwhile and useful to try to ascertain what exactly you want to achieve in the long term – and to define it as a single clear strategic goal. In addition to this, make a point of looking across all the resources on offer within the University. In our experience, if you know where to look the University has a wealth of intellectual expertise and technical support that can help inform and drive a project forward.’
Professor Timothy Garton Ash gives a five-minute video introduction to the FreeSpeechDebate (from the Oxford Podcasts collection).
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