Social Media And Freedom Of Speech: What Are The Limits

Traditional media has often been characterized by its inaccessible barriers to entry.

The costs associated with distributing content in major publications were, and still are, a prominent deterrent for parties looking to expose their messaging to a greater audience.

It was the industrialization of print media that afforded an opportunity to reach the masses at an unprecedented scale.

Though, it was the same innovative machinery that enabled companies to widely disseminate their publications, further restricting working-class demographics from propagating their views.

The Limitation Of Traditional Channels

In Power Without Responsibility, Curran and Seaton examine the history of British media. They found that fringe publications catering to a proletariat audience saw a steep decline in the mid-19th century, which persisted for many decades.

This can be attributed to the exorbitant financial capital required to leverage traditional media, which is reflected through historic trends about the value of newspaper enterprises.

In 1851, a New York City-based publication titled St. Louis Democrat was sold for $456,000; in 1920, similar localized publications were valued at $6 to $18 million.

As a result of this trend, the media of the last two centuries was largely influenced by a select few groups which had the sole means to exploit it.

This concentrated ownership of media channels saw a lack of diversity which was so critical that it could be likened to absolutism.

Throughout the 20th century, many nations found it necessary to enforce legislation that aimed to control the ownership of mass media. For example, Australia introduced the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

This did little to alleviate the issue, for as of 2011, 11 out of 12 major newspapers in Australia were owned by two publications.

It seemed as though that even nations which are governed by liberal democratic administrations were impervious to the limitations that major publications imposed on their freedom of speech.

This was until the conception of social media.

The Rise Of Social Media

It’s no secret that digital channels are growing exponentially more popular by the day while traditional media is on the decline.

This can be corroborated by statistics indicating that users now spend nearly double the amount of time engaging with digital channels compared to traditional media.

It is further exemplified by the fact that newspaper publications have had their revenue drop by over 50% in the last two decades.

A article written by Shelley Walsh, titled What Is Social Media? states that:

“As of 2021, 84% of the U.S. population uses at least one social media network. China alone has 1 billion social media users, and 4.65 billion people use social media worldwide. That’s 58.7% (more than half) of the global population.”

It’s safe to say that social media is now well and truly a part of our everyday lives. This is illustrated through younger generations.

A study that polled over 2,000 British parents revealed that 14% of children had expressed interest in pursuing a career as an influencer or a Youtuber.

What Makes Social Media So Popular?

What has made social media so alluring in the zeitgeist?

Besides the fact that these platforms have been intentionally designed to be addictive, they also offer users the chance to connect with their peers.

A study shows that 47.1% of its participants claim that they use social media primarily to maintain contact with friends and family.

However, in the context of free speech, the popularity of these platforms could be attributed to separate reasons.

In its infancy, social media made it possible for anybody with an internet connection and a sufficient digital device to say just about anything they wanted online.

After decades of being limited to consuming banal content churned out by corporations, many valued these platforms for providing a breath of fresh air.

Subversive material, which was unlike any of the content being aired on traditional channels, proved to be an immediate hit and quickly accrued staggering viewership. Content of this nature was soon dubbed as “viral.”

The advent of this sensation demonstrated that it was no longer essential to have significant production value to create content nor a marketing budget to publish it.

Virality seems to have shifted away from single videos and rather to a certain type of video, which is then replicated by other users, perpetuating its popularity.

It’s only every couple of days that I am becoming aware of an emerging TikTok trend.

This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if it weren’t for many of them involving harmful challenges, some of which proved fatal and resulted in the passing of several individuals.

As previously mentioned, many children engage with these platforms and are exposed to this dangerous content.

This is just one of the reasons why discussions involving the regulation of social media are continuing to become more prevalent.

Though censorship of such frivolous content may seem insignificant, it can have considerable real-world implications.

How Does Social Media Limit Our Freedom Of Speech?

It isn’t uncommon for brands to moderate content on their websites.

In fact, every major social media platform has Terms of Services in place, which outline what is and isn’t acceptable to post on their platforms. These rules are set in place to protect their users and reduce their risk of liability.

Content that is generally prohibited on most social media platforms are posts that include gore, child exploitation, hate speech, sexually explicit images, the promotion of self-harm, leaking private information without consent (doxing), the spread of misinformation, and more.

Here are Twitter’s rules if you wish to peruse a comprehensive list of examples.

Regulated platforms are received more favorably when compared to websites that offer little moderation, such as 4chan.

What sets 4chan apart from most other social sharing platforms is that they encourage users to post anonymously.

The platform also allows users to post content that would otherwise be deemed too extreme for most other major social media sites.

As a result, 4chan is regularly lambasted in the media and has accrued an infamous reputation.

The immense popularity of mainstream social platforms, and societal contempt for websites tailored towards radical communities, indicate that internet users are generally tolerant towards some limitation to their freedom of speech – so long as the content which is being censored is intrinsically harmful.

When Is It A Problem?

It’s easy to value our safety and well-being above unimpeded freedom of speech when the content we are censoring provides no value and serves only to offend.

But where do we draw the line? A large controversy that thrust this question into the limelight was the impact of social media on the 2016 United States presidential election.

The resulting discussions implied that social media platforms appeared doomed to pose a similar threat that concentrated traditional media ownership inflicts on democracy.

Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, is the eighth-largest lobbying organization in the United States, having spent over $15 million in total lobbying.

A majority of Meta’s contributions were received by the Democratic Party.

Twitter’s political donations follow a similar trend. Because of this, some were alarmed when Twitter allegedly began to shadow-ban prominent figures who opposed their preferred political party.

Shadow banning is when a social media platform or website blocks content or accounts from appearing to other users without the shadow-banned user’s knowledge.

Essentially, the content will remain visible to the original poster, but it will be hidden from others in the community.

This makes it difficult for those affected to gain followers, engage with others, or grow their audience.

Regardless of your personal political leanings, it is worrying that companies have the autonomy to silence you online completely.

Though Twitter was quick to remedy this issue, once it was brought to the public’s attention, it was already too late.

Concerns developed over the influence social media companies could have on significant events, impacting the lives of millions.

The Spread Of Misinformation

Another abstraction that was incessantly discussed during this time was the prevalence of fake news. The Cambridge Dictionary defines fake news as:

“False stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”

Traditional channels are regularly criticized for evident media bias and their penchant for skewing information to suit their agenda.

Though an argument can be made that social media platforms have even more disastrous consequences as they enable users to publish completely fabricated articles and disguise them as genuine news.

This online trend has resulted in fewer people trusting the credibility of the news.

See the following SEJ article on How To Identify Fake News From Real News Online.

The advent of fake news sparked a debate over whether or not social media companies or users were responsible for damages caused by the spread of misinformation.

Naturally, social media companies have tried to distance themselves from potential liability.

The CEO of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg, famously said in an interview, “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”

What Can We Do About It?

With social media platforms being as prominent as they are, it would be ignorant to suggest that users who are concerned about these issues should simply abstain from using them.

This is especially true when social media sites significantly impact the livelihoods of content creators, ecommerce business owners, journalists, and a number of other professionals who leverage these platforms for monetary gain.

So, what can be done to alleviate the threat that these platforms pose to our freedom of speech?

Governments around the world have proposed new legislation to tackle this issue, but many are failing to come to fruition.

In 2015, Australia formed the eSafety Commissioner, which claims to be the first government-backed agency aiming to improve online safety.

The eSafety Commissioner has been granted legislative function under the Online Safety Act 2021.

Though the pessimists among you may notice that some of the language used in this Act serves to further restrict freedom of speech – albeit for altruistic purposes. The eSafety Commissioner claims that this Act enables them to:

“Direct internet service providers to block access to certain material which could go viral and cause significant harm to the Australian community.”

“Gives eSafety new powers to gather information about people who use a social media service, relevant electronic service or designated internet service.”

Ultimately, unless you intend to commit a crime or post content that is generally regarded as harmful to your peers, it’s unlikely that you will be silenced on social media platforms.

Regardless, it is concerning that we currently do not have the infrastructure in place to protect our freedom of speech.

If worst comes to worst, several alternative social media platforms, such as BitChute or Mastodon, are starting to gain traction.

Though, please be warned that some of these platforms are known as stomping grounds for radical figures who have previously been banned from major platforms.

Knowledge is power.

With the understanding that social media platforms and traditional channels have the means to control the discussion effectively, you’ll be able to identify if/when a company is trying to manipulate you with its agenda.

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