Freedom of speech vs censorship in Social Media

Some weeks ago, the US Supreme Court addressed one of the most dividing issues currently facing social media. The question at hand is how far platforms can go in silencing critics without overstepping legal boundaries. This case could determine the extent to which these platforms can regulate user content while still respecting free speech rights. Some are calling it a fight for free speech in digital platforms whilst others consider that there needs to be some sort of censoring on certain content. The Supreme Court established a test to determine when government employees on social media can legally delete comments or block users. This guideline aims to clarify the boundaries of permissible actions for public officials engaging with the public on these platforms.

Created bt DALL-E after reading this post

Image created by DALL-E after “reading” the content of the post.

Several media outlets have been covering the issue but it is not the first time that this discussion is brought up to the public discourse. Two years prior, the Supreme Court threw out a case regarding Trump’s attempts to prevent critics from following his personal Twitter account. Initially, a lower court ruled that Trump had breached the First Amendment by blocking a critic from following him and expressing on his thread a particular viewpoint. However, the Supreme Court concluded that the case should be dismissed, as it was no longer pertinent to take action once Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter (now X) and concluded his presidential term.

Before that, there was another case in 2015 known as Elonis vs US. This marked a significant moment as it was the first time the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning “the constitutionality of prosecuting potential threats in a social media context.” The parties involved were the Supreme Court, on one hand, and Anthony Elonis on the other. The case emerged when Elonis posted statements on his Facebook page that seemed to threaten his ex-wife and other individuals. During his trial, Elonis requested the court to dismiss the charges, arguing that his Facebook comments did not constitute “true threats.” He claimed to be an aspiring rap artist and asserted that his comments were merely a form of artistic expression and a therapeutic outlet to cope with the challenges he faced at the time—being unemployed and dealing with family issues.

In this case, the freedom of speech was also scrutinized and questioned within social media feeds. Ultimately, the court rejected his defense, leading to Elonis being convicted to 44 months of imprisonment. This represents an extreme or worst-case scenario that has reached the Supreme Court’s attention regarding social media platforms. However, the current debate revolves around the issue of freedom of speech when users are blocked by government officials under the guise that their social media activity has impacted the integrity or well-being of the community they engage with. As complex and perplexing as this may initially appear, it is crucial to shed light on these matters in digital platforms. Instances of cyberbullying, discrimination, and hate crimes are not uncommon on twitter’s threads. However, when the comments or actions lean more towards a political agenda rather than being solely about personal aspects of the users, it becomes challenging for the courts to intervene and implement appropriate corrective actions without infringing upon individuals’ freedom of speech.

The diversity of opinions on the internet, as well as offline, seems natural, yet, as we’ve become accustomed to algorithms that filter content to match our preferences, our tolerance for differing views appears to be waning both on and off the web. This becomes particularly complex when such differences pose a threat to the well-being of others, leading to conflicts between the fundamental right to freedom of speech and other essential rights.
We don’t aim to delve deep into legal expertise within this discussion, but rather to reflect on how potential censorship on social media could affect the typical operations of these platforms. For example, YouTube has policies that prohibit users from posting comments that incite violence or are of an “inappropriate” nature. These rules are primarily designed to protect vulnerable users, such as the young or more susceptible audience members.

Indeed, censorship concerning political discussions on social media is scrutinized more meticulously. In recent years, politicians have increasingly turned to these platforms to appear more relatable and accessible to the public. With this heightened visibility, however, comes the risk of attracting not only civil and constructive feedback but also commentary born out of conflict and discord.Should differing opinions be excluded from social media feeds? What criteria should account holders use to decide which content aligns with their views and which does not? Who determines what is right or wrong in political discussions? The U.S. Supreme Court is attempting to find equilibrium in this debate. However, it appears that regardless of their decisions, the controversy has already been stirred. So, do you think political discussion is appropriate and effectively managed on social media platforms?

About Josep Valor

Josep Valor-Sabatier is professor of information systems and information technology and holder of the Indra Chair of Digital Strategy. He received his Ph.D. in Operations Research from MIT, and his Sc.D. in Medical Engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Josep Valor teaches extensively at the senior executive level on Management Information Systems, Media Management, Management of Technology, and Strategy.

About Beatriz Iglesias

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