Freedom of Speech & Free Rein of Social Media
Freedom of Speech, one of the essential human rights graciously delivered upon us by the United Nations General Assembly in form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It’s a principle that supports the freedom of individuals and communities to express themselves without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanctions. A core human right put together after one of humanities dark if not the darkest times. It is there to protect everyone’s freedom of expression and it started getting some attention as of late. By many suggestions, major social media players are dancing on the line of this core human right and may even be putting it at risk.
Longing for connection
We were maybe a little bit clueless when all this social media business started to grow. During the summer of 2007. thanks to a random encounter I learned about Facebook. A new social media platform in a time when social media platform wasn’t a term that was regularly used. It was a time when Myspace ruled the internet, at least in our neck of the woods. Facebook was a novelty and a lot of us tech savvy internet oriented individuals flocked to it to try it out. It quickly became a global phenomenon, a site that connects people. We as humans, even if sometimes we refuse to admit it, we are intrinsically wired to long for connection. That feeling of belonging to something, being connected to the community, that is something that began since we were in tribes. A lot of it was lost during the many years, upsets, failures and celebrations of the human race. When Facebook came along, a chance to revive at least a small part of that feeling was brought before us. As the word of this new site got around, more and more people got into it to rekindle that lost feeling.
Facebook’s success brought along others, others who followed the same principle of community oriented platforms which help bring people closer together. As years past by, their appeal and power grew. It grew the companies and it grew us “closer”, closer in this global village of outcasts, trolls, fitness influencers and stowaways who are just along for the ride. In al fairness, it did reignite lost relationships, made it easier for people to stay in contact and helped bring a lot of issues to the public domain. After all social media is such an amazing and exciting phenomenon that it simply cannot be placed in “good or bad” drawers. In our lives today, social media is almost a necessity, it’s part of the everyday life for most. Therefore it is not unusual that it has a crucial role in the world as we know it today.
Increased role in public life
Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, the big three. Societies livescore trackers, mirrors and village squares, places where we go for news, entertainment and mindless scrolling. It should be apparent by now that these products of human ingenuity and evolution play an increased, even crucial role on public life. What isn’t apparent is how their oligopoly made it possible for them to edit, censor or promote content which they see fit, all while being completely free of the responsibility of said content. More and more concerns are being raised by individuals and governments alike. Billions are being spent on political ads, politicians use these platforms to speak directly to the electorate and increasing number of political and social commentators are popping up on various platforms shaping public opinions.
Recent infamous “fact check” annotation slapped on the US presidents tweet stirred a lot of commotion. Questions were raised, questions of responsibility regarding the biggest social media platforms, and potential threat that they present to the freedom of speech. What has to be made clear, social media platforms are not liable for the content that third party users post to their platforms. But still, most of them are not strangers to suspending, banning or censoring users with whom they don’t agree. Which raises some questions, if they are not liable for content posted, why go out of your way to censor it (if the said content itself isn’t putting at risk any of the human rights) and who is responsible for the actions of the big three, who regulates them?
The all so familiar business model
Access to social media is free, anyone can create an account and start scrolling. Since it’s free it has to heavily rely on advertising. The business model isn’t anything new, it follows the traditional media model. But as it does with the traditional media, the question of potential conflict of interest that this model produces is being asked of social media as well. The thing is, since social media players don’t produce content that is on their platforms, they are not invested in it. They have no problem with removing any said content and banning users. Advertisers love that and that’s why they flock to social media more and more away from traditional media.
Traditional media, social media’s bigger brother can’t quite compete with the energy and ambition of it’s little brother. Traditional media has slowly been falling out of grace since the little ambitious brother was born. But big brother isn’t taking it lightly, traditional media was always regulated, it never had the free reign that social media has. And it looks like regulation is in works for social media as well, with a lot of countries and politicians voicing their concerns. Even Mark Zuckerberg went on record and called for regulations.
There is no getting around it, social media platforms are giants that attract a lot of money and power. They really are the new public squares, places where people gather to talk and bring issues to the public forum. Such strong and powerful tools without regulation can be hazardous, without regulations, conflict of interest talks are getting their fair share of spotlight. All sorts of private company lobbies, political influence, activists calling for bans of anyone they disagree with and lack of regulations paint a not so complimentary picture of the social media companies. In this day and age where information stands like a form of currency, virtual public squares and places for people to share their opinion need to be regulated. Banning people takes away their voice, it takes away their ability to be a part of the community which social media was supposed to reintroduce.