Do all Americans truly enjoy free speech online?
Do all Americans feel protected against what it deems as harmful, errant, or prejudiced speech? Let’s explore.
Let free speech flourish. However, in order to counter hate, lies, errors, or propaganda, we should allow for a tagging of a post or for some identifiable way to show that the post, upon review, appears to have issues. Then state a counter argument. This allows for everyone to be aware of the truth, to be educated on the facts, and allow for all sides to be heard.
We should not censor, ban, or bury posts. Nor should we punish users for exercising their constitutionally protected rights. Sure we hope people would act intelligently, fairly, accurately, and decently – and such behavior should be encouraged or rewarded – but we cannot silence even the hateful, the ignorant, the biased, or the negative.
We have three clear choices when it comes to social media and free speech:
Let anyone post anything, with no obligation to be truthful, respectful, or useful. Free speech, unmitigated, without threat of arrest or a social media platform ban.
Same as the above, but have flags posted alongside some posts, based on legitimate fact checks.
Leave it to social media companies to enforce unclear policies in some uneven manner that bans users, removes posts, and denies the free flow of dialogue.
Which one makes the most sense and feels right to you?
Social media is not traditional media. Social media is the unfiltered sharing of opinions from anyone about anything at anytime. Traditional media is provided by trained professionals who abide by journalism ethics, history, law, and social norms to create and edit quality content.
We don’t want to be China or Russia or Iran and arrest those who espouse views that contradict those of the government. Nor do we want it to be up to Twitter of Facebook to determine which posts to remove when it is clear they are biased, incompetent, driven by ego and advertising, and simply inconsistent or incompetent at what they do.
Whatever is posted – anywhere -- it is up to the consumer to take responsibility and educate himself on what’s fact vs. opinion vs. lies. Today’s media consumer must:
· Research what it consumes and question every statement, regardless of who said it or where it was published. Assume what you are reading/listening to/watching could have errors in it, as well as bias or deceit. Incompetence could be shaping it, too.
· Not be quick to share what you have not yet vetted.
Try to put your own confirmation bias on hold, meaning don’t keep looking for affirmation of how you view or feel about things; instead, consult sources or views you normally disagree with or have reason to mistrust. You need a balanced understanding of what others think and believe. Just because you watch or read something that you don’t agree with does not mean you will be brainwashed – it just means you are better armed in knowing how others think.
So what does all of this come down to? Really?
So much speech is noise pollution. Nasty jokes. Unsubstantiated rumors. Hate speech. Threats. Bullying. Unfair criticism. Sexism. Racism. Nationalism. Anti-Semitism. We circulate half-truths, outright lies, misquotes, misperceptions, and just dumb opinions on matters we are not even qualified to discuss. But we also share some brilliant ideas, educate people, raise good questions, and hold a spotlight over injustice, inequality, abuse, bad ethics, law breakers, and total scum.
Free speech comes with a heavy price, but it’s one I am willing to pay given the rewards. We can’t afford to ban, censor, or distort the information and opinions that want to be shared, no matter how vile, useless, and dangerous some of the statements may actually be.
On the other hand, why do we value free speech, so highly, when we know allowing for everyone to speak freely leads to violence, discrimination, and abuse in some cases? Just playing devil’s advocate here. But think about it. Why do I defend some idiot’s right to call someone the N word, deny the Holocaust happened, or tell me that someone should die for merely believing in climate change?
Because free speech is too important to be ruined by someone.
I also defend people’s right to criticize the government, champion positive ideas, and speak up for the less fortunate. We need to hear a variety of opinions, even ones that challenge, disturb, or anger us. Today’s minority viewpoint, if valid, can be tomorrow’s majority viewpoint. But if something is truly wrong or bad such as bullying, sexism, racism, or calls for violence, enough good people who have common sense will speak up and drown the noise.
So social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook are in unenviable positions, If they ban a post or a user, on what grounds do they do this? Is such a policy clearly stated and uniformly imposed? We know none of that is the case.
But if they don’t try to do something to control the exchange of harmful, error-filled, and threatening posts, what kind of civility rules our communications?
Damned if they do. Damned if they don’t.
Should social media just use robots to automatically edit or bar posts that use certain words? Well, that doesn’t work because words alone are not evil or good. It is all about context and a user’s intent that makes them seem good or bad.
Should social media fact-check statements and remove posts that are outright lies, half-truths, or strongly suggestive of something that can’t be proven? What will they use as a basis to determine what is factual, given some “facts” change daily, such as some of the scientific claims related to corona?
Should social media step in when a group is unfairly targeted, bullied, or even threatened? Where do you draw the line between criticism and dangerous claims, or between being mean and maniacal? Sometimes, a clean line can’t be drawn. Distinctions are hard to make when you look as a post on its own face value.
Now, that doesn’t mean we cannot set some reasonable limits on speech. There are laws against endangering or threatening the public. You can’t post on your Twitter account that you want to kill someone, ask for help in this task, share the person’s address, and carefully recommend how to kill him. You also can’t use free speech to brag about or confess to a crime without inviting law enforcement to use your incriminating statements against you to prosecute the crimes that you admit to.
You also can’t yell out fire in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Nor can you incite a riot.
People may think social media platforms do too much or too little to properly allow for the clean flow of true and fair information. There have been ad boycotts, Congressional hearings, stockholder protests, media criticism, and in-house arguing at these tech giants. None of it has resulted in a sound approach that all can rally around.
A New York Post op-ed in May by Mark Weinstein outlines the problem well. Weinstein, who is the CEO of MeWe, a social networking company, wrote:
“Moderation, I can tell you firsthand, is one of the most important and challenging aspects of social media. With the Covid-19 pandemic, social networks have been under greater pressure than ever to police their platforms to prevent the spread of misinformation.
“As a result, Facebook, You Tube, twitter, and the other social media giants have cranked up their censorship into overdrive, but they are ignoring the structural problems that allow misinformation to be boosted on their platforms in the first place.
“These companies are increasingly dictating what their users should and should not see and believe. They are kicking out good users and takers down countless harmless posts, pages, and groups simply forsaking questions about Covid-19 or presenting opinions that differ with those from the company’s executives and authorities. This widespread censorship of ideas would make George Orwell dizzy and runs counter to the whole purpose of social networking.”
We need a diversity of thought, even if such expressed thought offends some or many of us. Disagreement is health. We need more speech, not less. It is important that everyone expose themselves so that we know how to deal with them. We don’t want dangerous people in hiding, quietly and secretively spreading their unchecked statements of hate, violence, and ignorance. Put it all out in the open, for all to see and put in check.
We know free speech has always been protected and we need social media platforms to honor this concept. If the supreme court agrees that the KKK can march in Skokie, IL, we can absorb President Trump’s tweetfests of lies, errors, threats, and fear-mongering. If the courts permit flag burning as an expression of free speech, we can handle some yahoo spouting racial theories in a you tube video. Traditional media also needs to clean up its act, but we don’t censor it. FOX is clearly the mouthpiece of Trump’s government and MSNBC just editorializes its news in the whiniest, far left ways possible. Americans need to work harder and be smarter when it comes to really seeing through the hundreds and thousands of messages and soundbytes confront them daily, from traditional news media to social media, from advertising to books, and from politicians and businesses to Hollywood and professional sports. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone.
Some of the debate surrounding what social media platforms can, should and should not do stems from the telecommunications Act of 1996, particularly a section known as Section 230 (c)(1), which provides immunity to companies like Facebook from liability as it regards what users publish. Platforms like FB merely provide the place for third-party users to post content.
But the Act allows for platforms, if they choose, to manage some content, and still be protected. This “Good Samaritan” protection from civil liability allows them to remove or moderate third-party material they deem obscene or offensive, even if it is otherwise constitutionally protected speech, provided it is done in good faith.
Section 230 protections are not limitless. In fact, the Act requires platforms to remove criminal content, such as copyright infringed material. The Act was amended in 2018 to require the removal of material that violates federal or state sex trafficking laws.
Most legal scholars believe Section 230 provides all “Internet services providers safe harbor to operate as intermediaries of content without fear of being liable for that content as long as they take reasonable steps to delete or prevent access to that content,” according to Wikipedia.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. Is social media following the law and acting effectively? Is the law faulty? Should we just unleash a marketplace of true, pure, and unadulterated free speech, regardless of what is said?
“Social media was intended to be a place where good people of all stripes are free to express themselves and share opinions authentically,” wrote Weinstein. “The widespread censorship we’re currently witnessing runs contrary to this purpose.”
What will serve most of the people, most of the time, with the most positive outcome? Free speech.
Let it flourish, even if it means we give a megaphone to despicable people who say the nastiest things. This does not mean those who say racist, inaccurate, or threatening things go unpunished or unnoticed. No, no. We still have laws to protect us when crimes are committed but speech should not be a crime by itself. Use speech to correct negative speech. And when speech leads to actions, prosecute the actions, not the words.
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Brian Feinblum, the founder of BookMarketingBuzzBlog, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are the product of his genius. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2020. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent. This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo.