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Social Media Giants and Free Speech: Balancing Rights and Responsibilities

A huge point of concern these days is the increasing trend in social media platforms controlling and regulating content. Most of this is done by removing content and blocking or deleting the accounts of users. This raises a question of free speech and whether or not these platforms have too much power over what is and is not said over the internet.

The Spirit of Free Speech

It would be most helpful to understand the concept of free speech, both in letter and in spirit. On the surface, the right to free speech may simply mean the right to say whatever enters a person’s mind at will and not have to worry about the consequences that that speech would bring. But in actuality, the right to free speech must be paired with other rights belonging to others in society.

The constitution gives the right of inviolability to the dignity of man, in which a person’s reputation and privacy must be protected. Furthermore, spreading false information that would harm a person’s safety is unconstitutional. It must be understood that a person’s rights are only protected if a duty exists on others to protect that right, even if that duty means putting restraints on one’s rights.

Apart from these restraints, however, expressions of opinion on topics meant to spark discussion or share criticism are more than covered under the ambit of free speech. It is thus questionable that content that aims to do just this is being banned from these social media platforms.

So, are these platforms not violating free speech laws? The answer to this question could be clearer.

Free Speech on Social Media

Social Media platforms are overwhelmingly free to use, yet their profits are billions of dollars. This is because these products should be catered to the general public. Rather they are catered towards advertisers, who pay ridiculous amounts of money to these platforms to advertise their products.

These advertisers avoid having their name associated with ideas and content that would upset most consumers because it is bad for business. You might remember YouTube before 2016. There was very little content moderation, and anything and everything was allowed. During that time, some channels were sharing content promoting terrorist activity, and a user called for all advertisers to pull their ads from the platform.

Considering the amount of publicity around that situation, almost all major advertisers did that, leaving YouTube with the aptly named “Adpocalypse”.

Following this, YouTube tightened its policies regarding content moderation. Using suggestive language, showing nudity, and even discussing controversial ideas would strip videos of monetization or get them deleted from the platform. Following suit, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter started seeing similar reactions. Accounts were being deleted, Content was strictly monitored, and famous politicians and celebrities were banned for saying controversial things.

The debate for free speech began. But most people need to understand that these platforms do not operate like governments or public forums required to have these specific rules. Rather, they are businesses meant purely to maximize profit. They owe the people nothing in return. They are free to form policies as they will, and the only thing that can control them is the free market.

Speaking of which—how can they be forced to respect the right to free speech?

Enforcing the Right to Free Speech

Stop using the platform. As already mentioned, these platforms wish to maximize profit which requires the approval of the greatest majority of people. If most people stop showing their support by using the app, they will be forced to change their policies. Easier said than done, however.

The media today works on sensationalism. Shock and awe lead to more attention, which leads to more profit. Saying these platforms are “promoting terrorism and helping impose Shariah law” gets far more attention for action than “respecting free speech” does. The lack of awareness among the users harms the true essence of free speech because we do not know our priorities and what needs fighting for.

These platforms do have too much power over the public. Facebook has been proven to have contributed to the massacre in Myanmar. Even today, there is speculation that these platforms manipulate information regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. All this happens simply because the public allows it. And the platforms are incentivized to do this because their advertisers are forced to take sides in political debates.

Understand what free speech means. Understand how the market works. These basic ideas can help us form a plan for fixing the situation on the internet. It can be far better, but we can’t go towards betterment if we don’t know what “better” is.

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