There is little dispute that social media has become an important tool of communication in the 21st century. With the omnipresence of technology in everyday life, social media has the power to spark revolutions, quickly disseminate critical information, spread ideas, democratize the building of brands, and bring people together. In many ways, social media is like the second coming of the printing press. Just like how Johannes Gutenberg created a cultural, political and even spiritual revolution 500 years ago by inventing new, effective and powerful communicative technology, today we are living in the midst of a social media revolution. While it takes time for the powers of the day to adjust to any revolutionary idea or innovation, the political, cultural and social powers to be are adjusting and adapting to the communicative world of social media, and that brings new questions about freedom of speech, propaganda and censorship.
In order to understand any revolution, one must understand it’s roots. Social media as we know it today has it’s roots in Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) popular in the 1980s. BBSes allowed users to connect to a central network via dial-up connections and upload or download software and share information with other users in the days prior to the invention of the world wide web. Popular features of BBSes that presage social media include chat rooms and message boards similar to what we’d call internet forums today. The first website precursor to modern Social Media was a digitized yearbook style website called Classmates which was invented by Randy Conrads in 1995 to help users get in touch with former school mates. However, the first true social media app was invented in 1997 as a social experiment testing the web of contacts theory. This first truly social media website, SixDegrees.com, had it’s heyday from 1997 to 2000 when it had 100 employees and 3.5 million users. It was initially shut down in 2000 but has since been revived. SixDegrees provided a social media blueprint that was built upon and modified by each of it’s subsequent competitors. In 1999, Blogger came out innovating the concept of blogposts. In 2002, Friendster innovated the concept of social media friending and followers. In 2003, Myspace came out and revolutionized the idea of social media as a place to share music, videos and organize ideas. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg rolled out Facebook, which has become ubiquitous with statuses, event organization, and information dissemination, and in 2006, Twitter came out looking to capitalize upon and perfect Facebook’s innovation of status messages. These last two social media networks, Twitter and Facebook, are of high important because they are the apps that have survived and thrived into the internet giants that they are today.
Social media as we know it today is not radically new anymore. SixDegrees came out 22 years ago, Twitter is old enough to have a Bar Mitzvah, and Facebook is almost old enough to drive and vote. Furthermore, in some ways politics were really quick to adapt and grow with the medium. George W. Bush’s White House had an RSS feed and regular social media posts as far back as 2004, including the first presidential twitter feed in 2006. Reflecting his representation of a generational shift in politics, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 was heavily reliant on social media to get his message out there. Of course, it is nearly impossible to undersell the current president’s reliance on social media for everything from policy making to brand building to engaging his core base. In the 20 or so years that social media has been in existence, the political elites have proven quite adept at embracing social media to grow their brand and nurture their careers. It’s not just the politicians who’ve embraced social media. In the past 20 years, countless grassroots campaigns have used social media to organize, disrupt and promote change. The Arab Spring, which started a decade ago, was powered by social media to promote the message of democracy and organize protests. Similarly, the Occupy Movement was and still is staunchly reliant on social media to promote it’s message of income equality. Weather you agree or disagree with them, it’s hard to argue the BDS movement hasn’t mastered the art of memes on social media to get it’s message across. Most prominently, the hacktivist group Anonymous’s brand is almost exclusively reliant on social media and it’s links to the internet, including it’s meme-capitalizing Guy Fawkes mask brand identity. It’s not just activist groups who rely on social media. Many celebrities have maximized the use of social media to build their brand, including a new generation of internet celebrities who monetize their brand and followers on social media as Influencers. It’s hard to argue that society, politics and culture have failed to adapt to social media.
While social media has proven to give a liberating voice to millions of people and connect them digitally to their communities, what happens when darker political, social and economic forces start to surface and seek to use social media for their own nefarious purposes? While I’ve discussed in previous posts on how more malcontent criminal actors use social media to troll and spread fake news, what happens if broader social actors realize the potential and power of social media? The rise of right-wing nationalism has seen a proficient understanding and capitalization of social media in order to harness and grow political power. Inherently social-media-reliant campaigns that heralded the presidency of Donald Trump, Brexit, and other right wing political achievements have demonstrated the right’s utilization of social media. Tailored made apps like Gab, 4chan and 8chan have created a safe space for extremists on the right to insulate themselves with the echo-chamber effect, often with real world consequences. Just like how liberal forces have used Facebook and Twitter to organize social campaigns, right wing forces have coalesced around a memefied social media movement called the Alt-Right, and have used social media to organize several infamous cases of repression, including the fatal Unite the Right rally, the Portland Patriot Prayer rally, as well as physical protests of authors they disagree with. Furthermore, several high-profile right-wing terrorist attacks in the news lately were encouraged by social media and designed for maximum effect on social media, including the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh, the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, the Chabad of Poway Synagogue Shooting in San Diego and the attempted pipe bomber targeting liberal figures. While none of these terrorist incidents can or should be attributed to the Alt-Right movement at large, the role of social media is undeniable, and in this case, it has done exactly as designed. By bringing together and amplifying the voices of disparaged and disconnected individuals into an identifiable community, social media has allowed an otherwise voiceless population to coalesce and get their message across where otherwise wouldn’t be capable.
This brings to the fore a large and uncomfortable question: Is giving a voice to the voiceless too dangerous to security, and who should be able to promote political speech on social media? This is a question that has been on the forefront of public discourse in the past few months, and there is two competing philosophies at play here. The first is that free speech is a fundamental right that cannot be infringed. This is a fundamental right in the United States enshrined in the constitution’s first amendment. However, this philosophy is not as cut and dry as it at first appears. Firstly, the US Bill of Rights, particularly the first amendment, through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th amendment, only applies to federal and state governments. It has no bearing on how private entities like corporations govern themselves. This is why your boss can legally fire you for undesired speech. Facebook, Twitter and most other social media platforms are owned and controlled by private sector owners, not the government. Since they are not an entity controlled by the government, they are not constrained by the first amendment like the government is, and thus there is no constitutional violation when these social media platforms ban folks like Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopolous for speech they find detestable. However, if the government (through the FCC) were to classify social media platforms as communications infrastructures critical to the economy, then, through the Communications Act of 1934, first amendment protections would apply since there’s a government oversight and stake in these platforms. This is a course of action that is being advocated for by free speech advocates to protect unpopular voices on social media, including the current President.
The second philosophy in regards to who should be able to propagate ideas on social media is to air on the side of security and ban users who say or organize harmful ideas. Now, this train of thought is directly correlated with another question: “who is this speech harmful towards.” Facebook argues that the aforementioned bans were for violations of their terms of service, which state: “We are committed to removing content that encourages real-world harm.” Clearly, one could draw a conclusion that Facebook feels that the alt-right speech pushed by Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopolous may have influenced the actions of the shooters in Pittsburgh, Christchurch and San Diego. Facebook feels that it’s rightful to censor speech that calls for harm against real world folks, including, in this case, anti-Semetic and anti-Islamic violence that has resulted in death thanks to provocative speech. However, they are not banned from all social mediums, just Facebook, and competing social media platforms with different philosophies may and do welcome Mr. Jones and Mr. Yuannopolous to their platforms. Different companies have different policies, but what if speech and social media were regulated and controlled at the societal or national level? This is not a theoretical exercise. Many jurisdictions censor speech on social media. Chad has had a complete social media ban in place for over a year as a result of violent political riots; Sri Lanka blocked any social media posts related to the recent terrorist attacks in their immediate aftermath; Russia just passed a law criminalizing social media posts “disrespectful of the government or the Russian people.” Most famously, the Peoples Republic of China’s Great Firewall bars any social media posts perceived as critical of China, it’s government, the Communist Party of China, or any government officials in China, as well as other more arbitrarily defined speech crimes. While some of these cases of censorship, like Sri Lanka’s blackout on the terrorist attacks or Facebooks clampdown on the alt-right, are understandable for counter-terrorism and investigative reasons, many of them recall the question: “Who is this speech harmful towards?” The argument that this type of censorship clamps down on the spread of ideas and democracy while maintaining the the present order and power of strongmen and dictators is quite obvious.
While true democracies are reliant upon criticism of government to encourage the dissemination of ideas and the consensus based approach that’s inherent in a democratic system, at what level does too much free speech encourage mob rule and violence against minorities? What is the line between free speech and security from violent speech? And how do we protect vulnerable classes of people from violent speech online without taking from the rights and sovereignty of the people? These are the questions that prove the social media revolution is still experiencing growing pains, and that we have not yet completely adapted and mastered this amazing medium of communication as a society. A balance needs to be found in order to allow social media to reach it’s full potential as a communicative tool, and this is the issue that is manifesting itself in politics today. Social media is a great tool of communication, but, to quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have yet to define what this responsibility is in terms of acceptable speech and censorship. That’s the challenge we as a society face today.