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Free Speech in Our Current Society

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.

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Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age

The internet has changed the concept of freedom of expression by allowing for it on a much grander scale. The internet is of course, a place where someone from where I am here in Arizona can communicate with someone on the opposite side of the world in a different continent within seconds. Since the capabilities are this large, freedom of expression almost seems unlimited and impossible to control. Despite the fact that this is an amazing accomplishment, it seems in our current time this has caused more harm than good. People on the internet often seem to speak as though consequences do not exist on there and feel as though they can get away with whatever they say. In a world where it seems everyone was against bullying and cyberbullying, cyberbullying almost seems to be the hot new trend on Twitter. You can’t go onto any prominent figures’ Twitter page without seeing the comments flooded with insults and new slang such as “ratio” or “make better ___”. This article by Huffpost was published back in 2012 on topic of Twitter cyberbullies, showing that there were over 15,000 tweets every day that were categorized as cyberbullying. With the platforms growth since then, one can only imagine what these numbers look like in 2022. Back in 2012, Twitter had just under 200 million users. Today, Twitter has surpassed 400 million users.

I feel as though there definitely should be a ranking in values and rights online because certain things are just more important than others. The one I feel should be first above all is simply the freedom of expression. This is the main idea being discussed and it I feel as though it is the most important value to protect against the others. While there should always be guidelines and terms to follow on every website and platform, our first amendment right is the most important value to uphold and protect. Second, I would say should be our privacy. Just because we have the freedom to say almost whatever we think and feel, that does not mean you should be forced to be public to the online world. For example, my mom is brand new to social media and she does not want to ever be found by relatives or co-workers, so she has a very anonymous Twitter account with no picture and a randomly generated username. The right to protect our online presence is a close second to our overall freedom of speech. The next two I feel go hand in hand because without access to one’s speech, there can’t be any impact on one’s speech. However, if I had to pick one as being more important, I would say the impact is much more important. The internet can be a very unfriendly place and the things people say to each other on a daily basis is shocking. I feel like this carries more weight than the overall ability to see one’s thoughts and opinions because those who wish to remain private, can.

Overall, the internet has added an entirely new and complicated element to our freedom of speech and expression. There are millions of users saying tens of millions of things a day, making it seemingly impossible to monitor or to have any sort of limitations. Unfortunately, this has led to a lot more negativity and hate online, despite the potential for a very civil and open place for communication. However, times are always changing as is technology and we may see this trend or theme change at any moment adding an entirely new wrinkle to our first amendment rights.

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The Narrowing of Our First Amendment Rights

The rise of the state-level legislation around the United States is definitely a cause for concern. Our first amendment right is something that has separated this country from many others and any form of that being limited is something that should not be overlooked.

As more and more legislation is created to limit this right, it allows lawmakers to push their limits further and further each and every time. One huge topic that seems to be the driving force behind the creation of these new laws is protesting. As we learned from pen.org, 110 state bills were introduced between 2017 and 2019 that allowed for harsher penalties and sentences for protesters. The worst part about this all, was that this was greatly a result of the former President and his views and beliefs. It all felt very selective and targeted based on what his feelings were towards certain protest movements, and it almost empowered lawmakers that aligned with these beliefs to take things as far as they could. An amazing line from an article by The Atlantic stated, “The First Amendment is no good if it is used to protect one side of the political spectrum but disregarded for the other.” People like Donald Trump were calling George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs” but praised those who stormed the United States Capitol “good people”, and it was this sort of hypocrisy that was creating a lot of tension and divide in the country. There is absolutely a limit when it comes to freedom of expression or perhaps petitioning the government depending on how these situations were viewed. Yes, businesses and properties should not have been damaged, looted, and destroyed. But at the same time, and really a much more important scale, the United States Capitol building should not have been broken into, damaged, and destroyed. It was shocking and disappointing to see the differences in treatment for the two sides of the spectrum. Even the peaceful demonstrations in support for people like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor were met with much more force, aggression, and hostility from police than the people who were scaling the sides of the Capitol building and intimidating those who were there to protect it.

I feel conflicted in answering the second question of whether or not policy is the appropriate way of regulating free speech. I really feel like it should not be because of what I discussed in the first portion of this blog. However, the other side of me asks where the regulation would come from then if not through policy and lawmakers. I feel as though there has to be some other way to go about this issue because as we’ve all witnessed and experienced, things can be very biased and unfair when it comes to new legislation depending on those in charge. The best solution in my eyes is to create a more defined line as to what is determined free speech, expression, and petition, and what is too far. Perhaps this would prevent the ongoing number of bills being introduced as a result of protesters and demonstrations because there’d be a clearer answer as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

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