Timothy Garton Ash: „You have got to go into people’s echo chambers“

British journalist and free speech advocate Timothy Garton Ash has been called a “historian of the present.” As a reporter in the late 1980s, he personally witnessed revolutions and transformations in the former Eastern Bloc states. Now, the wave of democratisation following those upheavals is long gone. A nationalist attitude has arisen throughout Europe. Simultaneously, online discourse increasingly triggers ideological violence. According to Garton Ash, liberal values such as freedom of speech are under threat. If these populist revolutions follow the usual course of history, then, according to Garton Ash, simple fact-checking could be considered a counterrevolutionary effort.

You covered democracy movements early in your journalism career. In some of those countries – Russia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic – populist, even authoritarian politicians are on the rise. Did those movements fail? 

If you look back in history, for every revolution there is a counterrevolution. So it is, in a sense, normal that there is a counter- movement after 40 years of progressiveness and liberalism. What Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayip Erdogan, Viktor Orban and Donald Trump have in common, for example, is not only illiberalism, it is anti-liberalism. It is a conscious reaction against the world order that we have known for so long.

“For every revolution there is a counterrevolution.“

Your face turns very serious when you speak about this conscious reaction. Are you concerned?

Obviously, an awful lot of people feel “left out” by globalisation and liberalisation. They see that the world changes incredibly fast. To them, it seems their own street has become unrecognisable in the course of a decade or two. One of the significant mistakes we have made is that we have gone too fast in social, economic and cultural change. Discontent with the pace of this change is collected and voiced strongly by populist politicians and their supporters, especially online. This is a disruptive reaction to another disrup- tion of a more profound kind.

You observe that – as a consequence – freedom of speech is used in order to spread hate speech, or what you have called dangerous speech. How should we deal with this paradox? 

In my book on free speech, I argue that the internet is the largest sewer in human history. Most of what is coming out of it is just often anonymous rubbish. There is hate speech, and then there is a narrower category that I call dangerous speech, which is intended – and likely – to produce violence. In my view, the latter category is what the state has to go after.

“There is hate speech, and there is dangerous speech, which is intended to produce violence.“

Could you name an example? 

Consistent dehumanisation in a dangerous setting is dangerous speech. Take Der Sturmer’s agitation against the Jews in the mid-1930s, or jihadi incitement to violence against the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. The question is about the context in which the speech is judged. In the British context, where you have wide- open media, the antidote is already there. The question is at what point the big platforms, like Google, Twitter, Facebook should be instructed – or ordered by law – to take down speech? Clear instruction is needed. What we should not do is have those platforms basically make a series of censorship judgments.

But we cannot control all the content on the internet, right?

[Policing social media] does indeed still leave a vast ocean of content. We – academics and journalists – need to get into a conversation with the search engines and social media platforms about how they can help differentiate between the cleaner water and the absolute filth, the true sewage. It is like food labelling, but for journalism. That is an interesting way to go.

“It's like food labelling, but for journalism.“
Timothy Garton Ash in St. Gallen
Timothy Garton Ash in St. Gallen © Tobias Schreiner

How would this labelling work in practice? 

It should be telling the consumer: this has been prepared by a professional journalist or a newspaper staff member, and it has been fact-checked. It could say that an article is an op-ed, or satire. It could contain a warning: do not take this seriously. Also, we really need to learn to understand the new dynamics.

What do you mean by learning the new dynamics?

Starting in primary schools and continuing all the way to university, we need to educate people in media and digital literacy and how to deal with the large variety of sources available today. People nowadays get their news from an extremely wide range of sources and the danger of “alternative facts,” of disinformation and misinformation, is that we have no idea about what we are consuming.”

“We need to educate people in media and digital literacy.“
Timothy Garton Ash on free speech at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium

But often, even though articles have been fact-checked, the truth does not appear to matter.


At one level, it is a problem of fake news and alternative facts, which we have to identify. On another level is a simplistic, emotionally warming, nationalist – i.e. populist – narrative. Opening peoples’ minds to the fundamental flaws of this thinking is a much more challenging thing to do. You’ve got to go into people’s echo chambers, and then you have to try to persuade them to at least listen to you.

Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash is a former Eastern Europe correspondent. He has published nine books, including the new “Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.” Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University.

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