Matteo Stocchetti: Freedom of expression is not enough

To strengthen democracy, we need communicative competences.

The idea that freedom of expression is one of the fundamental democratic freedoms is widely acknowledged. A more neglected idea is that the effective exercise of this freedom depends on adequate communicative competences. This neglect is unfortunate because if the vast majority of the population does not have these competences, the exercise of the freedom of expression may eventually weaken rather than strengthen democracy. When a citizenry is deprived of adequate communicative competences, democracy and democratic communication become vulnerable to the threat posed by undemocratic propaganda and its dysfunctional response: forms of censorship that, with propaganda, may suppress legitimate forms of dissent.

Democracy is a political regime that depends on effective political communication. Political propaganda and legitimate dissent are relatively easy to distinguish in theory but not in practice. In the actual practices of political communication, both depends on freedom of expression and the measures that seek to suppress the latter are usually masked as measure to protect the citizenry from the former. To avoid the risks of censorship is necessary to distinguish the two. To distinguish what qualify as legitimate dissent from propaganda disruptive of democracy we need communicative competence.

The need for these competences and this distinction is more urgent than ever because the striking development of new communication technologies has brought about a polarization and radicalization of political communication that embolden the internal and external enemies of our democracies. Rather than introducing stricter forms of control and censorship to address the ‘collateral damage’ of new communication technologies, a far better alternative is to strengthen democracy by developing the communicative competences of its citizenry.

The adequate control of communicative competences enables the people not only to express their opinions more effectively but also to gain a more critical understanding of the opinions of others. The fundamental abilities of formulating and interpreting a text, for example, are essential to the formulation of opinions based on arguments and also to the evaluation of the arguments that others present in support of their opinions.

By strengthening communicative competences people become relatively immune to dis-information and propaganda but also to the negative effects of mediatization: the subordination of politics to the logic of the media and to the degeneration of electoral competition in political marketing. A more competent audience eventually demands the media to provide better, more relevant and more accurate information about the political program of their candidates. A citizenry with levels of media literacy adequate to our ‘global village’ is able to seek alternative sources of information to challenge mainstream narratives of relevant events. The widespread diffusion of these competences invites people to discriminate the quality of political candidates, to reject shallow ‘infotainment’ and inappropriate intrusions into their private lives, and to appreciate public figures that present effective arguments in support of their opinions and their political programs.

Strengthening people communicative competence, especially in formal education, is a most effective way to improve the quality of democratic communicative environment. In this environment, irrelevant, manipulative and disruptive communication will still exist but will not have the influence it has now on the population and their negative effects will be contained. Populist and undemocratic leaders will still try to exploit legitimate dissent to replace democracy with the rule of a ‘charismatic leader’, a political party or an elite of oligarchs. To gain any leverage on a competent citizenry, however, they will have to try harder.

Matteo Stocchetti

Matteo Stocchetti is docent in political communication at Helsinki University and Åbo Akademi, and principal lecturer at Arcada University of Applied Science.

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