In a democratic country, the right to free speech is hugely important. Being able to express yourself politically, socially, and ideologically is protected by law in many parts of the world.
However, social media and its role in free speech have become a huge topic for debate. Each end of the political spectrum claims that social media is preventing free speech or allowing unacceptable content that is offensive, damaging, or illegal.
With billions of people worldwide accessing social media daily, the potential to connect and communicate is greater than at any other point in history. This has positive implications for discourse and freedom of expression but has a darker side too. Misinformation, abuse, and hate speech have become commonplace.
But what are the rules around freedom of speech on social media and how do the social media platforms themselves police the content created?
Who Makes The Rules?
Until recently, social media companies operating in democratic countries were generally responsible for deciding what content was acceptable on their platforms. Each has a facility for reporting content. The level to which each platform polices content varies.
In the UK, online content is deemed acceptable unless it breaches an existing law, encourages violence, or is racist. The UK’s online safety bill was designed to tackle content that is ‘legal but also harmful’ such as self-harm and eating disorders. A recent inquest into the suicide of teenager Molly Russell concluded content she was exposed to on social media had a role to play in her death.
Is Content Controlled?
Do social media platforms have too much control over the content posted? Or are they not doing enough to protect people from misinformation and harm? High-profile figures such as Donald Trump and Elon Musk have made their feelings very clear on the subject public, feeling that the tech companies are unilaterally censoring opinions or voices they don’t agree with. Often these are said to be from the right of the political spectrum. However, research into social media algorithms has revealed that right-wing voices tend to receive greater levels of amplification on social media.
So is free speech controlled on social media? This depends on what you consider to be free speech. There is almost no democratic country in the world where you are allowed to say absolutely anything to anybody, no matter the content. Racism, hate speech, and anything else that contravenes existing rights and laws is regulated in some way.
How Other Organisations View Content
There is also a huge amount of debate on how people’s thoughts and opinions, often voiced on social media are acted upon by the public, employers, and organisations. There are many instances of people being fired for controversial viewpoints which while not illegal in themselves, are contrary to the philosophy of a company or can impact their sales or share prices.
The Future Of Online Freedom Of Speech
This is something that society is going to be dealing with for a long time to come. The balancing act between free speech and preventing harm online will be dealt with by governments, social media companies, and other groups with vested interests. Technology has always had the potential to be a positive force in the world as well as do a great deal of harm. Social media is no different.