Social Networks and the Social Contract of Free Speech


In recent months there has been some controversy about free speech on the internet. The consensus may be that freedom of speech was a good thing when it came to the so-called Arab Spring and Occupy Movements. However, it was a more destructive force when it came to the proliferation of inaccurate information regarding the Stubenville rape case and the Boston marathon bombing.

It’s great that social media can be used to make a difference. But when it comes to Internet vigilantism, the implications and consequences can be devastating.

According to Digital Trends, the aforementioned cases are just a couple of examples that can have a negative impact on free speech on a whole. Writes author Andrew Couts: “…Our propensity to jump into real-life events with real-life consequences without a full comprehension of either, as exhibited during the Steubenville and Boston fiascos, could lead to less openness in the offline world.”

Wired columnist Laura Hudson encourages caution before using social media to shame others. Hudson cites a case in which a woman at a tech conference where the bros were behaving badly and a woman tweeted her displeasure. One of the guys in question was summarily fired from his job.

Hudson argues that Adria Richards, a consultant with nearly 10,000 Twitter followers leveraged her influence to unfair advantage and that we should think twice before shaming someone online. Granted, this isn’t about taking action based on inaccurate information but rather calling someone out for behaving badly.

For the young man who lost his job, this was certainly no small incident. However, the public shaming caused him to think twice about his behavior. Hudson called this a case wherein the victim became the bully. But maybe intolerance of bad behavior could work to combat the prolific and abusive trolling that seems to bubble to the surface of social networks as they grow mainstream.

Indeed, there could be a case for shaming, particularly when it comes to the trend of threatening rape and — in some cases — murder for women who speak out against sexism on the Web. New Yorker contributor Emily Greenhouse recently argued that Twitter and other social networking sites have a responsibility to curb abusive behavior. While Twitter remains neutral when it comes to basic trolling, when one user made a specific threat against another, the antagonist was arrested the following day.

Here’s the thing we must all remember: With freedom comes responsibility. Sure, we’re free to say what we want but let’s not be foolish enough to believe our words don’t have consequences. If we are to live out the ideal of the internet being a vehicle for a more enlightened and connected world, we must be responsible with the freedoms the afforded by the medium.

Civility is a social contract, one that can only really be enforced through personal responsibility and peer pressure. Perhaps it’s time to find a middle ground between inciting a witch hunt that affects an ongoing investigation and allowing anonymous trolls free reign to abuse others on social networks.

Image Attribution Some rights reserved by SteFou!

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