Pushing the limits of free speech on social media

social media bullhorn

Social media: your own personal bullhorn. How you wield it is up to you. Image courtesy of pedrojperez, Morguefile.

We can say what we want on social media. Or can we?

I love social media because it offers limitless opportunities for education, entertainment and professional development. I’m currently following #DMXDublin (an Irish digital marketing conference) on Twitter and I’m having a great time snagging handy information. (I didn’t even get the jet lag — whoo hoo! Although I’d love to attend this conference. *sighs wistfully*)

I’ve seen social media used in all sorts of ways. For some people, it’s a wailing wall or a place to celebrate a milestone event such as an anniversary or a graduation. Social media’s a place to show off the unusual, the amazing or the embarrassing. And then your pratfall is visible, globally.

It’s a place where you are wise to censor what you say at times. Social media’s gotten people fired or fined for their lack of judgment. It shines a light on the bigotry or careless behavior of others, and they have a hard time recovering afterward.

It saddens me when people use social media to ridicule others (as in cyberbullying) or to promote fear through threats. Why waste life’s precious time pumping out these messages when there are so many other constructive things you could be doing?

Sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook have gotten so large that it’s not easy for them to police all of their users. Twitter, however, is cracking down harder on behavior that violates its Terms of Service, and I hope that other sites won’t be too far behind.

It’s always a fine line knowing what to say on social media and what to keep to yourself. The exact wording matters so that your words don’t get taken out of context. There are some industries such as banking, law and health where social media community managers have to be hyperaware of what they say and how they respond, in order to avoid getting into legal trouble.

It seems like the boundaries of free speech on social media get pushed farther and farther each day. It reminds me of the classic example of someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater and people getting hurt as they flee out.  If someone did the equivalent of that action in social media and injuries resulted, would we go after the person that created the alarm in the first place? Would we prosecute him or her for accidentally or purposefully spreading a rumor? We’d have to sit in judgment of context and motive, and we’d consider local laws.

There have been some legal challenges concerning social media privacy and freedom of speech. I’ve been following these cases to see how they turn out, since they have some interesting implications for the rest of us.

Readers: What are your thoughts on the future of free speech in social media? Let’s talk.



Filed under Social Media

12 responses to “Pushing the limits of free speech on social media

  1. It is a tricky one isn’t it, there isn’t a clear line between what is acceptable and what isn’t, and everyone has different ideas about what is offensive or harmful and what isn’t. Funnily enough, I’m a bit worried about a post I’m putting up soon, maybe later today, maybe tomorrow. It’s not so much the post itself I’m worried about, but just that it tackles an issue where some people have strong views, and I’m slightly nervous about what might come up in the comments, and my role in policing it, i.e. deciding whether someone’s opinion is ok there when it’s clear that it’s just their opinion, or whether I should delete it. Maybe it’ll all be fine, but it’s not the sort of thing I usually have to deal with on my blog because I tend to always keep it light-hearted, so I don’t know what to expect!

    • I’ve gone through that as well, wondering “Should I post this? Or let it alone?”

      One thing that I’ve learned from blogging (and social media) is that it’s impossible to predict with 100% certainty how people will react. I adopt the same light-hearted approach and I had one reader who got miffed at me even though it was not my intention to offend anyone.

      From what I know about you, you felt strongly enough about the topic to write about it. My advice would be to publish your post and deal courteously with those who comment. Maybe even try a little bit of your trademark humor in your response, if the topic permits it.

      You could delete the comments from people who attack you or others personally, so it doesn’t turn into a fight on your blog for the world to see. (This isn’t YouTube!) Or shut off the comments for that post if everything goes south.

      I hope it turns out okay. Keeping my fingers crossed for you. Blog on!

  2. I don’t think we’ve ever truly had free speech in the U.S. Certinly under the Comstock Laws much speech associated with sex was banned.

    Today, many words, expressions, etc. are classified as “hate speech.”

    Folks have always said things that are nasty, especially when politics are involved. Sometimes duels or shootings were involved.

    Bullying is not new. I suffered much bullying as a kid. Some of those bullies died long ago.

    • I’d agree. We have the right to free speech just as somebody else has the right to object to our free speech. *wry smile*

      What troubles me most about cyberbullying is that kids and teens don’t always understand the permanent consequences. Since the Web keeps it forever, those nasty tweets and other posts could come back to haunt them later in life.

      There have already been cases where people have been denied college acceptances or jobs because of what’s on their social media. A much different world now — it’s not only your offline behavior that you have to watch; it’s your cyber-behavior as well!

  3. It used to be that if you said or did something that offended people, only the people who were present, or their close friends, would ever even hear about it. Andy Warhol is often quoted as saying that everyone is now going to “experience 15 minutes of fame” as the world became a global media connected place. He had no concept of the internet and things “going viral” or even the fact that we could all become loud fish in our own social ponds. Everything we say in social media has the potential to reverberate for a long time through the corridors of our personal space. This is a phenomenon that Writers have dealt with forever. If you commit to putting your words and opinions on paper and publishing it, you are committing to defending it, forever, as often as people bring it up or point to it. We forget that Social Media is NOT a conversation, it is WRITING and it is PUBLISHING. When we do that, we commit to it the same way as if we had stood on a street corner and yelled, “I BELIEVE THIS TO BE TRUE!!!” Don’t write it or, more importantly, publish it, if you cannot stand to defend it, or hear the brickbats tossed at it by the ignorant, or those opposed or the noisy disaffected.

  4. I deliberately try to keep my blog light hearted. I have quite strong opinions, but I don’t think the blog is the place to air them. Occasionally people have taken what I write the wrong way and I am tempted to delete a comment, but I usually just answer as politely as possible.

  5. There is a lot of lawmaking to be done. I guess our founding fathers didn’t see this coming. Social media is the wild, wild west of media outlets until Wyatt Earp comes to shoot the bad guys. Meanwhile, we need to be very careful what we say, how we say it, and where we go.

    • There’s still a wild west atmosphere, but over time I think it will be tamed a bit. Maybe in the future there will be less hiding behind one’s computer screen online and more transparency.

      I wonder if the founding fathers would be fascinated by social media and our ability to communicate worldwide with just a few clicks? Thomas Jefferson, at least, would probably get a kick out of all the gadgets like smartphones, tablets and the Apple watch. That boy loved his gadgets.


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