How freeing is free speech?

Brady's Roadhouse

In the aftermath of the recent 2020 election, President Trump was banned from social media platforms after years of controversy over his use of social media to share misleading content and inflame his millions of followers. This suppression of former President Trump’s speech on social media, and whether it is validated or not, is going to have significant effects when dealing with social media companies and freedom of speech in the future. 

This is not the first time that big tech companies have come under fire for influencing elections. Congress has investigated “privacy breaches, fake news and the alleged manipulation of the platform by a foreign adversary to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign.” Journalist Lucien Bruggeman says this and discusses Mark Zuckerberg’s first testimony before Congress in an ABC News article after the 2016 election. With the proven ability to influence an immeasurable amount of the U.S. population, and anyone with a connection to the internet for that matter, there needs to be a new form of government regulation that is created to check social media companies.

Freedom of speech, created under the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, is a fundamental right for all citizens of the United States. The First Amendment reads that “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise; or abridging the freedom of speech….” The Founders knew how important freedom of speech was for a democracy to work as, “Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one,” James Madison said in a 1791 issue of the National Gazette.

Even though speech is a fundamental right for individuals and democracies, it is not an absolute right. America still does restrict rights for the sake of public welfare, as long as it is done with due process. With the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol building and the many violent protests that happened over the summer, we now have clear examples of why we should regulate social media in support of public policy.

Social media is built to be tailored to the user, and this is achieved by tracking everything you do on the internet. Who you follow, who you communicate with, what posts you like and even how long you look at a post are all tracked and then used to try and better personalize the service to the user. By creating a service tailored to the user with this much information on them, it is creating a place where their ideas are only supported and echoed by other like-minded individuals who they follow and like.

This is resulting in a radicalization of both parties. As Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff puts it in her international bestseller book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” social media is, “tuning, herding and conditioning individuals and populations in ways that are designed to elude awareness.” 

Users on social media are actually becoming disconnected from a majority of the population as they are continued to be herded into groups on social media platforms to the point where they see only posts that they approve of and like.

By regulating social media companies, an argument can be made that the government is interfering with the freedom of speech for Americans, and also the private businesses that own these platforms. 

Tyler Sonnemaker, a reporter from Business Insider discusses Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which gives legal protections to “interactive computer services” — like social media companies — that: 1) prevents them from being held liable for content posted by their users (with some limited exceptions), and 2) allows them to moderate content on their sites as they see fit. The government should not be able to force these companies to open up their sites and associate with viewpoints that their owners and shareholders find objectionable.

The Founders also believed how important the fundamental right of free speech and the liberty to speak freely was by saying in the federalist papers that it would be, “folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

In order for the United States to be a free democracy, it ultimately relies upon public opinion.

As social media has infected every part of our lives and has influenced our beliefs, thoughts and what we see on the internet, we need to regulate – not social media, as that would infringe on the freedom of speech – but the private businesses instead, particularly the software that is in place. 

Algorithms on social media take information and apply it to better tailor their services to the user. I believe this is why when the Pew Research Center updated its 25-year study of the public’s political values, they found that the partisan gap in opinions on more than 40 separate political values had nearly doubled over the previous quarter century. This slow but sure radicalization of the United States population is causing violence from both sides, and something needs to be done to stop this trend. 

With this proven ability to influence an immeasurable amount of the United States population’s thoughts, one might believe that there needs to be a new form of government regulation created to check social media companies for the overall purpose of having complete free thoughts, and in turn, free speech again.