Social media gives everyone a voice. Anyone with internet can create an account and start publishing their ideas and opinions. This is a significant change from pre-internet days, where if you wanted to voice your opinion to a large audience it required that you had some resources behind you. You would need to pay for printing or publishing fees, meaning it wasn’t accessible to everyone. Now social media has leveled the playing field, but what are the limits?
In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants all Canadians freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication, within reason. I, as a Canadian, am proud to have this right, and know I can express my opinion without fear of reprimand from my government. However in a world of social media the government doesn’t always decide on what can or cannot be posted on social media, it is the company that decides.
An example of social media companies making the decision on free speech is the Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017. This rally was organized on social media. The rally had their own Facebook page, and was trending on Reddit. After the rally the Ku Klux Klan leader tweeted that the rally was just the beginning. You can find more details on the rally and how it used different social media platforms in the planning process here.
Despite the United States having a similar freedom of speech law as Canada, the government did not step in to limit the group, nor did most social media companies. Most social media companies consider all content allowable unless you directly threaten an individual or a group. Particularly if you mask the language, since often it is computer programs that detect hate speech, not humans.
In the Charlottesville example, larger platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit didn’t restrict the users. They are, after all, a company and their goal is to attract members not to turn people away. However, a company that did restrict users was Airbnb. They investigated potential guests to determine if they were attending or using venues on Airbnb for the White Supremacy Rally, and evaluated their use of platform on a case by case basis.
Another example of a company deciding on freedom of speech is Facebook during the last american election. Facebook considered banning Donald Trump from its platform because the content he was posting was in violation of Facebook’s content standards. The full story can be found here. In the end, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg intervened and said Trump could stay on the platform, because removing him would be too disruptive to the election.
Again, the company decided on the posts and determined if they were discriminatory or hateful and if they breached that company’s policy. This Maclean’s article discusses the ethics of companies limiting free speech on social media. It points out that because a company has more freedom than a government they are able to act faster to remove hateful content. But should they?
Should it be up to the president or CEO of a social media company to protect our freedom of speech or censor us? Their personal biases would obviously play into their decisions. Should governments step in and set up firm regulations for posting on social media to ensure free speech is consistent? Would that even work on global platforms? Which countries law would reign supreme? As social media quickly develops and new platforms emerge, can the government keep up in regulate something that is so fluently changing?
Hello Twitter, can you hear me? Will you cut me off? Does social media help or hinder our free speech? https://bit.ly/2Lw72NN
Have your voice and speak it too! Is social media helping or hindering our right to free speech? I want to freely discuss it! https://bit.ly/2Lw72NN