Bad week for free speech on social media
We’re often keen to highlight the democratic benefits of social media, especially in bringing greater openness to a country such as Iran.
But this week, in Australia, we’ve seen a debate over online political censorship, with the banning of Facebook groups such as “KEVIN RUDD = EPIC FAIL”, that it makes you wonder if we’ve forgotten that the power of social media lies in its ability to embrace dissent and criticism.
In the online world, dissent is not just allowed. It is central to social media’s political power.
This week has not been a good week for online political speech. On Tuesday we brought you the story of how the South Australian Government had sought to require online commenters to given their name and suburb.
On Wednesday we told you about Facebook’s decision to take down the group called “Kevin Rudd = EPIC FAIL”, which had over 3000 members and focused on building a list what it described as Kevin Rudd’s broken promises.
The latest update on that story is that Facebook has told News.com.au that the group was shut down due a threat of violence being posted on the Facebook group.
But should the comments of an individual or even a couple of individuals making unacceptable comments lead to the closure of the entire group that had thousands of members?
Surely, a more appropriate response by Facebook, or any other social media site, is to terminate the user’s account rather than the entire group.
Otherwise, there is the risk that you undermine the basic tenets of social media that make it so powerful.
Now a number of our readers sought to highlight in response to the earlier article, that sites like Facebook and The Punch are a commercial enterprises that can publish what they want and censor what they like.
This is true, but its important to remember that what makes a successful social media site attractive, and thus commercially viable, is that it provides a place for free and open social interaction.
For example, here at The Punch we post critical comments on a daily basis.
(At this point I’d like to give a special shout-out to the gentleman who criticised my decision not to grill the PM’s office on what they knew about the Facebook group, when they knew it and whether they approached someone else to ask for its removal…)
The point is, that in any social media environment it is beneficial to take on and even embrace the criticism.
Some readers also suggested that if people wanted their own freedom of expression then they could do so easily, setting up their own websites.
While this is true that and a viable avenue for anyone to take, what you lose, in doing so, is the wider interaction that a social media website like Facebook offers.
Partly, it is about having the online political discussion, the good and bad, the for and against, out there for everyone to see but there is another element to social media as well, it’s called identity.
While people might not like or agree with sites like “KEVIN RUDD = EPIC FAIL” or “TONY ABBOTT IS A TOSSER” these groups form a key part of people’s online public identity.
When you log on to someone’s Facebook profile their groups tell part of the story of who they are and what they believe.
Limiting this censors not just political speech but the political power of social media.
If you want to engage more people in the political process social media will over the coming years play a key part in that – just look at Barack Obama’s election campaign.
If political groups are censored, because of comments from a few individuals, then social media loses a rich and growing element and thus the chance to better communicate with and engage people in the political conversation.
While groups like “KEVIN RUDD = EPIC FAIL” may or may not be correct or popular, but the point censorship ensures sites like Facebook are merely about the trivialities of life i.e. becoming a fan of “alarm… SNOOZE, alarm… SNOOZE… oh no…”
Given the political power of such groups wouldn’t that be a shame? Maybe we should ask the Iranians…
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