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Is Internet Freedom Dying? The Cost of Bearing Witness

June 1, 2016

Please forgive the ambiguity of the title; it stems from personal frustration rather than a desire to entice readers. This article began as an attempt to talk about a recent incident in which Jessikka Aro, a Finnish journalist, asked her audience to share their stories of encounters with the pro-Russian “troll army.”

But from there, I was Alice.

The research led down a dystopian rabbit hole, and I fell past scenes that ran the gamut from the 3 year prison sentences for Al-Jazeera English journalists to the four hundred-million-plus propaganda posts generated by the Chinese government-sponsored 50 cent army. The looking glass, it seems, was darker than I remembered.

The more I hear about the opportunities of our connected world, the more I simultaneously hear about the terrors it induces. And I wonder, what are the rewards for speaking up? What is the cost of bearing witness?

For Aro, the answer was internet abuse and death threats, a slanderous YouTube video, and the release of her personal arrest record to the world. In asking her audience to bear witness to the abuse they had suffered at the hands of on-line tormenters, she was labeled an unstable, drug dealing, NATO puppet. And that was before they got her personal phone number.

But as bad as it was for Aro, the journalist refuses to let it get her down. Her courage is a testament to the perseverance of journalists everywhere in the face of threats. And not just the physical threats that battlefield reporters face, but also threats of a different kind, whether they be psychological, spiritual, or censorial.

Bearing witness, traditionally, entails the process of seeing something first-hand, and reporting on that experience. Tied up in bearing witness is the intended removal of subjectivity or hearsay from the report of the alleged event. Bearing witness is also traditionally tied to trauma and the alleviation of the burdens thereof.

But as recent scholarship has pointed out, bearing witness should also mean that these reporters need not face these threats in isolation. Sue Tate works to shift the meaning of what it means to bear witness, describing it as “the act of appealing to an audience to share responsibility for the suffering of others.” For Tate, this also means encouraging participation: “hearing the appeal, being affected by it, and translating that affectedness into emotions that moralize public action.”

It is not enough for a reader or viewer to allow reporters to bear sole responsibility for witnessing. Though Aro was singled out by the troll army for mistreatment and abuse, it is her public’s responsibility to continue to bear witness with Aro. She was not the only one affected by the kind of digital persecution now commonplace on all social media sites, and thanks to her readers who have taken to Twitter to share their own experiences, Aro feels less alone, stating the support “helps me overcome the fear and keep on investigating.”

We here at the Silver Tongue are no strangers to criticism, but we certainly haven’t received any death threats. What would I do if someone got ahold of my phone number, my addresses, my personal history? To be honest, I’m not sure. I do know the decision would be easier to make so long as I know that I’m never bearing witness alone.

If you want to know more:

  • Here’s a link to more info on Russian “Troll Factories”
  • Sue Tait’s article “Bearing witness, journalism and moral responsibility” can be found in Media, Culture & Society 33(8) pp. 1220–1235, and is an interesting read for anyone trying to understand the motivations for and consequences of bearing witness
  • Kelly Oliver’s book Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) is a more in-depth look at the cognitive underpinnings of the processes of witnessing and recognition
  • Here’s a link to the complete article “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument” by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts.
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