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The Polarized Express: An Analysis of Free Speech on Social Media

Julian Zhang

I. Introduction

In her 1906 biography of Voltaire entitled The Friends of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote a sentence so famous it is often misattributed to the French writer himself. The phrase "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" perfectly summarizes the classical liberal attitude towards freedom of speech, but is becoming an increasingly unpopular opinion in a more polarized world. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution unconditionally protect citizens' right to freedom of speech and expression, meaning it would be unlawful for the government to persecute one for their speech. However, these acts of legislation do not apply to private corporations, meaning that legally speaking, they can censor speech at their discretion. This has led to a world where large social media monopolies which form a digital town square, have become the arbiters of free and acceptable speech. Recently, billionaire Elon Musk fully acquired the social media giant Twitter in hopes of making it a haven for free speech. Within months of his purchase, Elon has fired 75% of its workforce, reinstated several controversial figures, and published a plethora of documents detailing Twitter's censorship policies throughout the last decade. Be his takeover rushed and downright organized as it may, it still serves as a step in the right direction for social media corporations to be more accepting of free speech.

II. The Dangerous Gray Zone of Censorship

The basis of all Western society is predicated on freedom of speech. Even in ancient philosophy, tools such as the Socratic method are based on hearing conflicting viewpoints to draw a logical conclusion. In a democracy, the ability of citizens to have public discourse is the best mechanism for holding governments accountable. In a functioning bureaucracy, there must be freedom of speech to ensure political compromise and the passing of legislation. All of this points to the fact that the censorship of any speech has the potential to set a dangerous authoritarian precedent. This all directly translates to social media, a medium which rivals in-person communication with its usage. According to Gruzd and Mai (2020), an overwhelming majority of Canadian adults (94%) who use the Internet have at least one social media account. When bestowed with this massive influence, social media corporations now have the responsibility to maintain the same principles of free speech on their platform. The question then becomes, should they be the ones to enforce it?

When it comes to social media corporations versus governments regulating free speech, there are just as many competing stakeholders and interests. Like all corporations, social media and tech companies are profit-driven, and one of the fastest ways they make money is by showing their users content they agree with. However, this can have unintended consequences, including influencing elections such as Israel's general election in 2015. According to Bruns et al. (2015), the winning right-wing party in that election was also the one that garnered the most engagement through posts, likes, and shares (p.39). For supporters of left and center-leaning parties however, the election results came as a surprise since the content they had been shown mainly consisted of posts attacking the incumbent Prime Minister. These echo chambers that are formed on social media are extremely harmful to civil discourse and only get worse when corporations are allowed to censor speech. Additionally, when actors such as governments, political parties, and shareholders are involved, there is too much room for corruption and the use of censorship as a weapon. For example, many social media users have been banned for the spreading of hate speech and disinformation, but those terms present a significant definitional gray zone where corporations can exercise a large amount of discretion. Although this is almost always done with good intentions, broad categories such as hate speech and deliberately convoluted Terms of Service present a potential facade for the pushing of certain political agendas. Due to the plethora of competing interests, social media corporations should not be the ones tasked with controlling normal speech.

III. Public Outcry and Violent Speech

The decision to censor speech is also not made exclusively by social media corporations: In the age of online mob mentality, they are greatly influenced by mass public outcry to censor unpopular or offensive material. Not even a month after Musk's complete takeover of Twitter, more than 50% of top advertisers pulled out of the platform amidst mass controversy (Nix). An exodus of this scale would deal a crippling blow to the bottom line of most publicly-traded tech corporations, and almost certainly lead to policy changes to appease advertisers. This raises an obvious problem: if public outrage can coerce social media corporations to restrict free speech policies, is the speech really free? All viewpoints, regardless of how offensive they may be, must first be discussed for them to be debunked. In fact, they often come from genuine concern - anger against immigration, for example, could reflect the frustration that many citizens hold after losing their jobs and feeling that the state is not doing enough to provide for them. Furthermore, social media corporations must allow free speech to prevent further radicalization. Previously censored Twitter users simply went to worse social media platforms like Parler or 4Chan, where they were thrust into more radical echo chambers that only confirmed their beliefs. The most fringe opinions will still be the most unpopular, with users being able to mute, block, and report accounts they deem to be hateful, but in almost all cases, the representation of these harmful ideas in the digital town square is essential for the continuation of civil discourse.

Of course, there are still instances where speech can cross the line and become violent: for instance, Donald Trump's social media ban in 2021. Speech which incites violence should be banned, as well as harmful misinformation that is explicitly proven false. Although Trump never directly called on his supporters to attack the Capitol, he made untrue claims about the 2020 election with no evidence. Falsely accusing the government of treason to millions of enraged supporters qualifies more as an incitement of violence than free speech, making his ban completely justified. However, all other speech, even opinions that are considered completely absurd, ought to be preserved. There also needs to be significantly more transparency on the part of social media corporations and their Terms of Conditions on what constitutes bannable speech.

IV. Conclusion

At the end of the day, if one thinks that content on social media is so ridiculous, conspiratorial, or without reason, then the vast majority of rational users should be able to determine the same for themselves. If anything, they should seek to engage and disprove it, because discourse is at the heart of social media's purpose. As long as they are not directly harmful, all forms of expression should be protected. Our right to free speech is tantamount to our right to free choice, and for us to lead a dignified life, should only be infringed upon when absolutely necessary.


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Nadeem, Reem. "Most Americans Think Social Media Sites Censor Political Viewpoints." Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 13 May 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/ internet/2020/08/19/most-americans-think-social-media-sites-censor-political-viewpoints/.

Nahon, Karine. "Where There Is Social Media There Is Politics." The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics, 2015, pp. 39 - 55., https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315716299-4.

Nix, Naomi, and Jeremy B. Merrill. "Advertisers Are Dropping Twitter. Musk Can't Afford to Lose Any More." The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Nov. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/11/22/twitter-advertiser-exodus-musk/.

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Suciu, Peter. "Do Social Media Companies Have the Right to Silence the Masses - and Is This Censoring the Government?" Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Nov. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2021/01/11/do-social-media-companies-have-the- right-to-silence-the-masses--and-is-this-censoring-the-government/?sh=602666ec48e2.

Vera Eidelman, Kate Ruane. "The Problem with Censoring Political Speech Online - Including Trump's: News & Commentary." American Civil Liberties Union, 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.aclu.org/ news/free-speech/the-problem-with-censoring-political-speech-online-including-trumps/.