Social Media: Balancing Free Speech and Dangerous Ideas
On Wednesday, January 6, the United States witnessed unbelievable acts that stunned and shook a nation already on edge.
On Wednesday, January 6, the United States witnessed unbelievable acts that stunned and shook a nation already on edge. The history of a peaceful transfer of power was upended. The deadly siege of protestors storming the U.S. Capitol raised urgent questions about the security of our democracy. Many of these problems are rooted in social media and the consequences that come with sharing a post. Although some social media sites have made strides to stop people in power from driving violence on their apps, more action needs to be taken to mitigate the growth of falsifications, especially those spread by figures of authority to a wide audience.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow individuals to spread manipulative narratives with phenomenal ease. Cynthia M.Wong, a former senior internet researcher specializing in human rights watch, described Myanmar’s crisis in the film. Facebook manipulated public opinion and helped incite violence against the Rohingya Muslims. These Muslims were subject to “mass killings, burning of entire villages, mass rape, and other serious crimes against humanity” that led to 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country. These horrific crimes began in the form of hate speech on Facebook, and as figures picked up tremendous momentum, offline harm occurred. In Myanmar, people were easily seeking out others who believed the same as them, reinforcing those positions. Alarmingly, that is exactly what has been happening in our country. Claire Wardle, who works with the Berkman Klein Center for the Internet at Harvard, elaborated that entire information ecosystems of “falsehoods and conspiracies…are ricocheting from politicians, down to [one’s] next-door neighbor…[and] Facebook groups.” If our democracy doesn’t have a shared set of facts, we can’t continue to function.
Trump’s social media tone adds to our society’s polarization, and he uses his immense platform for the worse. The events that happened on Wednesday were not spontaneous. Trump repeated the idea of a stolen election to his followers through his social media platforms, publicly engaging in unfiltered riling with his followers. He publicly asked his supporters to come to Washington, and march to the Capitol along with him. That afternoon, after an even more inflammatory rally, an angry mob of Trump supporters, various extremist white supremacists, and anti-government groups battered the police, broke into the Capitol, left five people dead, and cast a dark shadow over the end of Trump’s Presidency. George Packer, a writer with The Atlantic, observed that in small, overlooked towns and rural areas, there was “a collapse of traditional sources of authority and of meaning, the church, the union, the company, the newspaper, the political party...People were looking for an identity, a narrative, and villains. And Donald Trump provided them with all three of those things.” Trump’s views were an escape from reality for many people, and his Tweets, capable of reaching millions, inspired and could have continued to inspire riots like those of January 6.
Acknowledging that there should be limits of free speech on social media is a pivotal step in determining where we need to draw the line in order to maintain safety. Two days after the attack on the Capitol, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account. However, the problem reaches far beyond Twitter, and the company considered the ongoing implications with various audiences off-line. Trump’s two Tweets were considered a violation of Twitter’s “Glorification of Violence” policy. In response, Trump used his government’s account on Twitter, POTUS, to denounce Twitter’s actions as a violation of his First Amendment rights, rigidly accusing Twitter of conspiring with “Democrats and the Radical Left.” However, The First Amendment only prevents Congress from passing laws that limit free speech and does not apply to private companies. Given that the effects of misusing social media apps are detrimental and a serious reevaluation of social media sites’ management is long overdue. Otherwise, people will continue to exploit the benefits of social media. Before messages are released from influential people, especially those who hold public office, the companies should look over them to ensure that hateful and inaccurate speech are not available to the masses. It is crucial that social media sites manage the damaging content people on their apps produce, so we never have to face again the horrifying disarray we did on Wednesday, January 6.