Social Media and Freedom of Speech

– Maya Krishnamurty

Social media is one of the most talked-about forms of communication at present, due to its enormous and constantly growing user base, ability to allow genuine two-way, real time mass communication on a scale that was inconceivable a decade ago, and “cool” and “high-tech” image.  Its utility as a tool of political mass mobilization was demonstrated graphically in the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, when millions of protesters across Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and the rest of the Arab world rose to fight for democracy, freedom of speech, and equality.

However, social media has a darker side to it. Political parties use it routinely for their mass mobilization campaigns, using hundreds of online members to harass and bully political opponents and dissidents into submission. More worryingly, terrorist and extremist groups have been known to use social media to communicate across cells and gain new members. In 2011, mobs set fire to buildings and businesses across London, England, using social media to coordinate their orgy of destruction. Vague threats of violence against North-Eastern immigrants in Bangalore in early 2013 spread via social media and caused thousands of people to flee home in a panic. Governments have sought to regulate it – China has been extremely restrictive of freedom of speech in any form of social media, while the Supreme Court said in 2013 that social media could not remain exempt from regulation.

Edward Snowden’s revelation of Project PRISM showed that social media was being used as a valuable spying tool, with governments seeking to purchase information from companies or decrypt it directly. Even if freedom of speech is not threatened, users remain vulnerable to being spied upon, and no one knows if a harmless statement is likely to bring upon government intervention, or the intervention of violence by local political parties (as two girls in Mumbai fell victim to). Furthermore, every user of social media is continuously spying upon others, and being spied upon by others, with peer pressure itself being a form of censorship.  In social media, freedom of speech is limited, and in danger of being restricted further.

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