Social media is probably the largest area in which free speech comes into question. There are so many different platforms with their own sets of regulations, and there are millions of people posting millions of things each day. This raises a lot of questions and conflicts when it comes to free speech, especially when it comes down to it being limited.
Social media is meant to be a “public sphere“, a place where anyone can express their thoughts and opinions and have every right to. Social media is often referred to as an extension of print and broadcast media, which has given a bit of background into regulation and how to navigate it. However, I feel as though it’s too different because of how many more people have access to social media. Due to this many users on a daily basis, this has caused some social media platforms to enforce regulations in order to hinder some speech. While I personally don’t disagree with many of these regulations, at the end of the day, they are still limitations on free speech. The main example that comes to mind is Twitter, which is one of the largest platforms for people to post and interact. Twitter, as many know, have specific guidelines and rules. They also had cracked down much more on flagging tweets that were deemed misinformation or harmful such as Covid or politics related posts. While these are all in place in order to protect from people being mislead and to prevent further online conflict, censorship like this can have the opposite effect on users and create bigger issues. As of just a couple of days ago though, Elon Musk purchased the platform for about $44 billion with promises to allow complete free speech, which has caused its own set of disagreements. The other side of this brings Facebook to mind, which is known for having many conspiracies and false information throughout the platform. There is a large group of people who feel things like this should not be allowed online, as it steers people in the wrong direction and can be harmful to those who are truly unaware. However, there is the argument that people are free to post what they please and it is up to the consumer to make their own educated decisions which unfortunately, is hard to argue with.
Government and policy makers are put into a tough position when it comes to the line between social media and real life speech. It’s much easier to identify and justify real life situations that are harmful without violating first amendment rights because online, they are now dealing with the platforms themselves and their rules when it comes to harmful speech. Entering the digital world would call for a whole new set of arguments and eventual laws which could defeat the sole purpose of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in being a place where you can fully express your thoughts and opinions. However, it could be the solution in a situation where there is very distasteful speech that no one wants to see. Just because something is legal, it doesn’t make it harmless. Allowing entirely free speech could cause for some very awful things online that could not only create real life conflict but end up hurting these platforms directly by losing advertisers and users all around because of the lack of regulation. I think a middle ground amongst law makers and these social media giants is a very possible solution where there is a clear line that can be crossed where speech becomes too distasteful for others and is censored or even removed. What would likely prevent something like this from ever occurring would be that every platform from Reddit, to Facebook, to Twitter, etc. would have to be bound to the same exact rules created by the government. This could end up resulting in no disparity amongst platforms and eventually file down into a place where there is one huge platform people all go to which would likely never work. This could cause users to feel more limited than ever as it would very likely give off the feeling that they are using one large government regulated and monitored platform and the first amendment is meaningless. Not to mention, there is nowhere near a consensus as to what is deemed “harmful”. One solution mentioned by techdirt that I could see being a great starting point, would be to give more power to the users/consumers over what they see. While this doesn’t offer much help at all for lawmakers or the government in terms of finding a solution, allowing the users an easy and clear way to filter what they see could create a clearer understanding as to what people find to be harmful. There would be data on what is blocked the most and what isn’t, and also show the specific groups of users that are posting and enjoying the content deemed harmful by most, which may be pretty useful information itself.
While this topic is one that may never have a final or true solution, it’s important to attempt as many steps as possible. Our society moves so rapidly and social media changes by the day, so the argument over free speech will probably look different in the years to come. However, we will never come close to the answer without trying and I feel as though things will start to calm down over time. With the political clashes we’ve had the last few years and Covid taking over the world, people become very defensive and on-edge about many things and I’m hopeful that we will all be in a better place in the near future to where these types of topics can become much more civil and easier debates.