Social Media and the Free Speech Battle

Social media doesn’t care about your first amendment rights. 

Or, better yet, they don’t need to care about your first amendment rights. Here’s why:

Yes, you can say (almost) anything you want in a public space without fear of our government fining, arresting or otherwise punishing you for what you said. However, if you were to walk into a restaurant, sit down, and start spewing profanities and hate at your server, that restaurant has every right to kick you out. Is that a violation of the first amendment? No. Why? Because that restaurant is a private establishment that you chose to enter.

Now here’s something you need to remember about those popular social media platforms: while they are publicly owned, they have the same authority as that hypothetical restaurant to “throw you out” or to censor what you and I say on their platforms. We do not pay to use their platforms to connect with people, and by creating our social media profiles, we’re agreeing to play by their rules, whether we like them or not. In the grand tradition of the Internet, terms and conditions have to be public, but not necessarily up front and center. That means, if you continuously post racial slurs or targeted harassment, don’t run away crying “but my freedom of speeeeech!” when Facebook bans you for a week.

We aren’t saying Facebook and Twitter don’t need to do a better job censoring user content. Hate speech is a difficult to define concept, and many people are quick to point out that taking a hard line on censorship can lead us down a dangerous road. Just because an opinion is unpopular, does that make it hateful? Even if a post or tweet is hateful, does that mean it’s threatening or harmful?

What exactly do social media platforms deem as hateful and abusive speech? Facebook has a lot to say about their community standards, but you’ll notice that much of it is quite vague and open to situational interpretation. Twitter has similarly overarching rules about abusive behavior and hateful conduct as well. Both platforms claim that they look at the context of each post and look at overall hateful behavior as opposed to the occasional off-hand offensive comment. 

I believe we should strive to maintain a platform where people can go to discuss these sensitive topics, and that means policing these forums to keep them safe for thoughtful discourse. After all, that is one of the beautiful side effects of our social media-obsessed world. People are exposed to new ideas, opinions, and viewpoints each day, and many are forced to broaden their previously held conceptions as a result. 

One final point to add. If you want your opinions to be heard, considered and not deleted from social media platforms, there’s an easy solution: learn how to share your beliefs online without insulting and belittling others. 

Remember what your mom used to tell you, “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all?” 

Here’s my updated take on that phrase.

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, shut your damn mouth and get off Facebook.”

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Matchstick Social is a social marketing + advertising firm headquartered in Charleston, SC with a satellite office in Oklahoma City, OK. Matchstick specializes in social media marketing, optimized social advertising, effective measurement of social initiatives and helping start-ups gain social currency by establishing their digital brands.