Should Social Media Companies define their own free speech policies?
Free speech is controversial because it inevitably implies that one may say harmful, biased things, and essentially get away with it. But, the theory itself has boundaries. One’s words are free, as long as they do not provoke violence (Chadwick, 2017). “Freedom of speech allows ordinary people to participate freely in the spread of ideas and in the creation of meanings that, in turn, help constitute them as persons” (Balkin, 2004, 3). Free speech works to promote democracy, as well as democratic self-government (Balkin, 2004), where each person, their thoughts, ideas, and words are their own. Internet speech and social media ultimately make certain aspects of free speech noticeable. Social media undermines human rights with laws and regulations that govern the content being posted by users who should be having more say, and social media also manages to do the complete opposite by often having a lack of regulation where regulation is needed. It is easy to manipulate public opinion when one makes rules and algorithms. For example, Facebook claims to be a neutral platform, but it is not. The order and popularity of posts is determined by an algorithm created by Facebook. This already places and immeasurable amount of power in the company’s hands. This could be beneficial in the sense that a user will likely see pictures of people they are closer to, for example, but the idea changes altogether when Facebook ends up controlling the kind of news you see (Lee, 2016). And so, changes need to be made that will prevent social media companies from making their own, unjustified rules. Firstly, to the “algorithms” behind posts, i.e. users must have more control over what they are reading, seeing, and saying, and secondly, to the rules and regulations employed by social media platforms.
Speech generally covers a wide range of topics, including politics as well as popular culture, and it is full of innovation and full of creativity. It is the crossroads of reading, writing, production, and consumption (Balkin, 2004, 32). Free speech is the embodiment of civic liberties, allowing one to be self-fulfilled and to participate in democracy. This is the path through which people can experience their rights. Of course, the discussion is theoretical. It is not unknown that democracy has rarely seen true practice, but this is where the general public come in. Conventional media has certainly contributed positively to promoting events and news, and oftentimes important facts and opinions, but it has also fallen on the complete opposite side of the spectrum of rights and speech. The level of commercialisation, bias, and corruption that exists in conventional media, however, often overshadows its positives. Within traditional media, one more than often finds instances of racism, sexism, and bigotry ignored because of biased and a desire to promote a particular political figure.
“Culture is more than governance, more than politics, more than law” (Balkin, 2004, 37). Freedom of speech is also the freedom to express one’s culture. Public opinion is formed through dialogue, and how is that meant to happen if it were limited? The issue of censorship is that having any kind of negative limitation/regulations of content, is unrewarding and misleading, and ultimately is a censorship on all thoughts and ideas. It is demotivating to think that your voice may not be heard, and it is degrading to find yourself in a situation where you need to say something, but you cannot. Social media has been presented as a gift to society; it is a platform for exchange. Social media began as a gift to the public, a potential voice for minorities and the unheard, but the unjust regulations placed upon it strip its initial appeal away.
Free speech and social media often clash. Lack of regulation as well as regulation are harming free speech rights. This becomes a challenge for social media companies to find a proper balance between preserving people’s democratic as well as basic human rights. Although social media sites do allow for free speech, with restrictions, the lack of regulation, or rather the lack of restriction in the right places, threaten the true values of free speech, which are explicitly to not promote violence of any kind. We cannot rely on community policies to protect our freedom of speech, we must rely on ourselves and each other. Regulations should only concern incredibly harmful events, and not arbitrary rules like nudity on Instagram (Fig 1). Regulations should also allow for the education of the public. Barakeh’s photos of drowning refugees (Fig 2), for example, although hard too look at, are an important issue and not publishing such things will promote ignorance across the board.
Figure 1: Freedom of Speech in Nudity (Source: Instagram @parisjackson)
Figure 2: A photo from Barakeh’s “Multicultural Graveyard” (Source: wp.nyu.edu)
Perhaps the better “algorithm” on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should come from a questionnaire that every user must fill out once they sign up for an account. This will ensure that their interests and concerned are secured without assuming it for them and stripping them of their right to comfort. Also, users could possibly be able to “opt-out” of the steering Facebook tends to control (Lee, 2016). Free speech is a democratic value for all faces and voices, and social media must adapt their regulations to accommodate this. Equal values and rights should be priority and our voices must continue to be heard. We have the mind capacity to decide what we do and do not want to see.
Balkin, J.M. (2004). Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: A theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society. New York University Law Review. 79(1).
Chadwick, P. (2017). Social media are testing the legal boundaries of free speech. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/24/social-media-law-free-speech
Lee, T. B. (2016). Facebook is harming our democracy, and Mark Zuckerberg needs to do something about it. Vox.com. Available at: https://www.vox.com/new-money/2016/11/6/13509854/facebook-politics-news-bad