Over the last few years, specifically in the last few months, we have seen a lot of discourse over free speech and social media. Last month, Donald Trump’s twitter account was officially taken down, something that has sparked debate over what constitutes as free speech. In this essay I will consider the idea that social media is a democratic space for dialogue, and what this means for free speech.
Social media allows for everyone to have an equal voice on the platform. In the past, it was harder to get your message into the world. You had to be a writer for a newspaper, a TV news reporter, or a radio broadcaster in order to have your voice heard. On social media, everyone has the same access to posting. If you have an opinion about something, you can tweet it, Instagram it, make a Tik Tok, or post on YouTube to share your message. It is through this that social media acts as a democratic space for dialogue.
Many people are also heading to social media to get their news, rather than traditional media news outlets. Bergström and Belfrage (2018) state that “society is moving from a traditional news cycle dominated by journalism professionals to a more complex information cycle that incorporates ordinary people within the process” (p. 583). Shearer and Mitchell (2021) have shown that 36% of adults in the United States get their news from Facebook, 23% on YouTube, and 15% on Twitter (para. 2). Social media platforms allow anyone to post information and content, which can either be interpreted as fact or opinion. While social media can be a good way to have news be more accessible, it can also lead to false information and harmful opinions. When these posts become dangerous, social media platforms will fact check, suspend, or remove posts and accounts they find offensive and harmful.
With Donald Trump’s twitter account being removed, there have been many arguments over free speech. If people with the same opinions as Donald Trump are also removed from social media, are their rights being taken away? The United States has the First Amendment, which was made to “prevent Congress or the states from blocking people’s freedom to express themselves” (Phillips, 2020, para. 5). This is meant to stop the government from restricting speech. However, Twitter, and other social media platforms, are private companies. Free speech has never protected tweets that are an “incitement of violence” (Gelber, 2021, para. 2). The government cannot force a private company to “publish something it doesn’t want to publish” (Phillips, 2020, para. 5). In fact, free speech allows private companies to host only what they want on their own site, and not be forced to share everything by the government (para. 5). Twitter, and other social media sites, are allowed to make their own rules about what is allowed on their platform. There are certain lines that cannot be crossed. For Twitter, they decided that incitement of violence was the line, and Donald Trump’s twitter had to be removed. Tweets like this cannot be defended under free speech, such as when they cause harm (Gelber, 2021, para. 12).
Another important aspect to consider when discussing the democratic space of social media is the echo chamber effect. Social media uses algorithms to curate a feed that is designed specifically for you. The algorithm will choose “which content a given viewer will see” (Röemmmele and Goldzweig, 2017, para. 4). An example of this is when a user on Twitter likes a tweet from Donald Trump, they will continue to see content that is in line with his views, and the algorithm would not show this user posts about “gun control, affirmative action, or gender issues” (para. 4). Can a space truly be democratic if you are only shown content you agree with? Although social media allows anything to be posted, only certain people will be shown this content. Experts have explained that when we are only shown content we agree with; it encourages us to “take more radical political positions by creating a comfort zone where these are more easily adopted” (para. 9). This does not create a space for true dialogue on social media.
So, are social media sites democratic spaces for dialogue? Yes and no. Everyone is given an equal opportunity to spread their message on social media. However, the social media site is a private company, and does not need to allow your posts to be shared online. If your posts violate Twitter’s policies, you do not have a right to share your voice. In the same way, if Parler decides it only wants to allow certain opinions online, they have the right to do that as a private platform. Additionally, social media does not function as a true democratic space that shares all opinions equally to each person. The echo chamber effect allows certain opinions to be shown to people who agree, and the differing opinions shown to those who agree with that. There isn’t a real dialogue being shown if your curated feed is only meant to show what you agree with.
Phillips, A. (2020, May 29). Analysis | No, Twitter is not violating Trump’s freedom of speech. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/29/no-twitter-did-not-violate-trumps-freedom-speech/.
Röemmele, A., & Goldzweig, R. (2017, November 9). Social media can be a healthier and more democratic space for politics. The Dahrendorf Forum. https://www.dahrendorf-forum.eu/social-media-and-democracy/.
Shearer, E., & Mitchell, A. (2021, January 12). News Use Across Social Media Platforms in 2020. Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. https://www.journalism.org/2021/01/12/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-in-2020/.