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Freedom of Expression, even on Social Media must be Absolute, but not without Accountability

As social media emerged from the dorm rooms of universities to the world at large, it was initially imagined as a mirror image of our own society but without borders – the embodiment of a more connected and united world. It wouldn’t even take us two decades to realize how romantic and delusional such assumptions were. Truth be told, early on, social media did make the world a smaller place and helped connect people from far and near. It wasn’t all so bad back then, in fact social media helped push the limits of public outreach beyond imagination. Even politically, it enlightened people and allowed us to show solidarity for a common cause like say, climate change that concerns people across borders. It helped organize and amplify political ideas and movements for reform. But, soon enough, things started going downhill. What was meant to bring people together was now polarizing democracies and their citizens to the extremes.

Social media gave ordinary people something that their governments or even their elites hardly did – the freedom to express and participate in the mainstream discourse. It gave most people for the first time an audience, without obviously the hurdle of stage anxiety. For most people, it was the first time they were being heard or read. This freedom was new and much welcome. But it didn’t us too long to abuse such freedom either. While social media in some way mimics society, the dynamics of it aren’t quite the same. Society has its own unsaid rules and obligations, some of which are pretty universal in nature while some others are specific to certain cultures. Most people would hesitate to abuse, offend or defame someone they disagree with in person, or at least they would think twice before doing so. But, social media comes with a perk – anonymity. This is where the faceless trolls come in, usually led or influenced by some really vile people as well who don’t feel the need to hide their identity, mostly because what they say has hardly any consequence on them. Even if their post is taken down some time later, their idea by that time has travelled far enough. However, to do the same thing in person would require an actual confrontation which most people wouldn’t be too comfortable with, irrespective of how they feel. This is because societies have their own pre-established code of conduct that all of us are conditioned to – where there’s respect for authority and actions, however hateful, have real consequences which could even stretch as far as social ostracism. Even hateful people are cognizant of that and humans who are designed to be social in order to survive wouldn’t want to lose their place in it. However, there’s no such obligation on social media as such and the only thing most people have to lose is the much craved validation, which to be honest, is something you draw in abundance when you say or do something outrageous. Plus, there’s an excess of friends on social media which most humans do not need and aren’t designed to handle either. Offending a few such people who you hardly know wouldn’t cause much inconvenience anyway. The returns are greater than the losses. You might lose a distant friends but you find new followers, especially like-minded ones.

Prior to the emergence of social media, traditional, liberal media would act as filters for public discourse. Thoughts and ideas were first judged and analyzed to see if they met editorial standards before being published for mass consumption. This helped keep bad and destructive ideas outside the realm of mainstream public discourse.  So, toxicity stayed where it belonged – in the fringes. But social media demolished that structure. Everyone is now entitled to an opinion that can also be amplified faster than sound itself. The checks and barriers are gone as social media giants act as marketplaces of opinions with zero to little regulation or editorial policy. And since, social media platforms have larger and faster outreach than traditional media by a huge margin, so potentially dangerous ideas stay up as part of the mainstream discourse with millions of buyers. One must take into account the fact that people tend to think rather emotionally than logically. So, provocative ideas and stories that trigger strong emotional responses travel farther and faster. Even more so if it reinforces some insecurity amongst a social group.

So, in the light of this, one could argue that freedom cannot be absolute and there should be certain restrictions put in place. And they’d have a point. But how do you then police thought? Can you really jail people for saying things? If so, how many could you jail? One could then argue that people must be educated first to be entitled to such absolute freedom of expression on powerful platforms like social media. But even rational and educated people have biases and prejudices that cloud their judgment. So, what do you do then? The logic is, you filter water before you pour it in a glass for drinking, not after.

It’s practically impossible for social media giants to sift through millions of posts every day. And unlike what Zuckerberg might like for us to believe, AI isn’t as good of a judge just as yet. What can be done however is to bring in user accountability so social media resembles society closely enough. First, there must be no room for anonymity. Only people who are able to verify their identity must be allowed to have accounts, so no one can get away under the garb of anonymity. If one is say something bold, one cannot do so from the shadows. One must be fearless enough to deal with the consequences of it. People and pages on social media who spread misinformation must be flagged, so their credibility is at stake. For this, social media giants must empower independent fact-checkers and must respond to their alerts fast enough. Such fact-checkers can be given access to certain analytics to track what’s trending so they know what to keep an eye on. Social media platforms also need to do something about their recommendation algorithm or just get rid of it altogether. The recommendation algorithm is designed to serve the user an endless feed of what they like to consume. Hence, it reinforces people’s biases while also keeping them hooked. As such, people get cut off from counter opinions. Usually, traditional media provides consumer multiple aspects of an idea for more perspective – high time social media algorithms did the same and prevented the deep polarization in our societies.

Social media is now the centre-stage for political discourse and so the platforms must take more responsibility. Most of all, they must stop sucking up to governments. Facebook has exempted politicans from its fact-checking program in India. Facebook had flagged a misleading post that BJP MLA Himanta Biswa Sarma had shared but removed it later. However, every misleading tweet from Trump during the US elections was flagged. So, why should a user in India not be protected from misinformation like another user in America? Social media platforms must realize that governments love the idea of regulation and censorship, so if companies like Twitter and Facebook want to prevent governments from swooping in, they must act while there is still time.