Freedom of Speech in the Age of Social Media

As Americans, freedom of speech is considered our pinnacle right. After all, the First Amendment is first for a reason. But as social media becomes the source of choice for many to express themselves and ever more integrated in how we communicate every day, it’s leading to fresh discussions about freedom of speech and censorship.

Politicians, politically minded groups, and everyday citizens are turning to social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to get their message out and share their thoughts. These companies have their own policies about what is acceptable and unacceptable to post on their pages, and what content is taken down or banned is oftentimes controversial.

What’s clear is that as companies and as a society, we’re struggling to find a balance between freedom of speech and what constitutes censorship online.

A recent example, is Twitter temporarily suspended Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign account for sharing cellphone videos showing threats against him made by protestors outside his home. The backlash was quick, with many Republicans pointing to no clear Twitter policy on this type of post, and instead calling it political censorship.

Talking about this incident, Kalev Leetaru of Real Clear Politics noted that, “In essence, Republicans have afforded a private company, most of whose employees are known to be liberal, some measure of control over their official government and campaign speech. And as talk among prominent Democrats increasingly turns towards regulating social platforms, they too may find their own speech curtailed.”

On the other side of the issue, many Americans are concerned about social media as a venue for hate speech and violence, which some argue are fueling violent actions like the recent tragic shootings in El Paso and Dayton. How can social media monitor this speech, and is there a way to stop these tragedies—preventing violent words from becoming violent actions?

In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a piece in the Washington Post calling on government to be a better partner in how they monitor social media. He said that “we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.” He went onto argue for a more standardized set of rules to monitor major social media platforms.

Since the founding of our nation, our country has struggled with the question of what free speech really means, and social media and the internet make those discussions more complicated than ever.

Leetaru’s piece on the McConnell’s Twitter incident ended by reminding readers “of the enormous dangers inherent in allowing the whims of private companies to dictate speech, particularly that of government officials.”

Freedom of speech is a critical and essential American right. But has its meaning and the viewpoint of Americans on this issue changed in the age of social media?