Free Speech in the Age of Social Media

Popular social media platforms used today.

The age of social media is upon us. Everything from news to humor; from advertising to expression and art, is saturated with information and is a forum for an increasingly wide variety of debates and discussions. With the current chaotic sociopolitical climate in the world, people have found that the largest and most accessible way to inform and reach out to people is social media. And what better way to exercise your right to free speech than to use social media?

Where is the line? 

Social media is used to propagate all kinds of political impact. It’s the medium used to petition, to plan protests, and –in times of sorrow and grief– to show support. The big question seems to be about where we draw the line. Where things get too offensive or extreme is highly subjective. Death threats, racist, homophobic comments– it’s hard to accept that any one of our loved ones could be scrolling through their feed and be exposed to posts that contain this graphic content. Although there are certain things that are admittedly more or less objectively indecent on social media, topics like highly encouraged weight loss programs and body shaming [1] remain subjects of heated debate. A more recent topic of controversy is the Russian interference in the election by financing anti-Hillary religious advertisements. This means that approximately 126 million people have been exposed to Russian propaganda through Facebook and Instagram combined.[2] How can you trust the authenticity of content when higher authorities can so easily meddle with and influence others? How can you decide if someone is trying to make a positive social change or raising hard questions that society needs to confront from someone who is disrespecting or manipulating members of their community?

Social media has always been advertised as a place where free speech is encouraged, which is why intermediaries have such little incentive or obligation to interfere when things get out of hand.[3] Although cybersecurity is gradually taking more action, people mainly ever feel the need to delete offensive content when they receive enough backlash from other users, bringing us to the inevitable conclusion that the burden to monitor social media often falls on the public as the regulators and enforcers of what’s acceptable in online communities.

 

[1] Sylvia Chou, Abby Prestin, Stephen Kunath, “Obesity in Social Media: a Mixed Methods Analysis”, US National Library of Medicine, March 12th 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4167901/

[2] Cecilia King, Nicholas Fandos, Mike Isaac, “Russia-Financed Ad Linked Clinton and Satan”, The New York Times, November 1st 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/us/politics/facebook-google-twitter-russian-interference-hearings.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

[3] Brett Johnson, “Tolerating Extreme Speech on Social Media”, National Communication Association, October 1st 2016, https://www.natcom.org/communication-currents/tolerating-extreme-speech-social-media

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