Is Social Media Free Speech or a Means to be Freely Ignorant?

Reggie Fullwood
Reggie Fullwood
Reggie Fullwood

by Reggie Fullwood

So how many of us have been casually strolling through a social media site and saw something so ridiculously troublesome that you just couldn’t believe that it was real? For example, who are these people that upload videos of fights between young adults in a neighborhood setting or even a mall?

Who are the people uploading videos of someone getting attached on a public bus or other types of assault and even bullying? Is that free speech? Should we have the ability to upload or post whatever we want online?

It’s no secret that if you have followed my column, I am no fan of social media – it is truly Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.
On the surface, social media is great. The websites and applications enable users to create and share content that can be beneficial or just interesting. But then there is the flip side of social media when we see videos like the one from Steve Stephens who shot and killed a 74-year-old stranger point-blank, recorded it on his phone, and uploaded the video to Facebook.

Stephens then broadcast himself on Facebook Live as he drove around the Cleveland telling viewers he was searching for his next victims. As a big black bald dude with a beard, I was thanking God that I didn’t live anywhere near Ohio because I am sure that police were on high alert for anyone brother matching the description of the shooter.

And this wasn’t the only horrific incident captured live and broadcasted via Facebook. There have been both good and bad outcomes from Facebook Live since the feature launched a year ago. But here’s the million dollars question – can you really blame a social media platform for the disgusting way people are using it or does the entire blame go to the user?

And here’s the other question – does the First Amendment/Freedom of Speech protect the user?

There are legal cases out there that have forced the Supreme Court to basically determine if social media written posts or videos fall into the realm of free speech. Anthony Elonis posted a series of threatening posts on Facebook to his wife after she left him. It got so bad that he was arrested and convicted of a federal offense and sentenced to more than three years in prison.

According to the America Bar Association, “he appealed his conviction, arguing First Amendment protection. His defense claims that the comments were satire and black humor, which should be given poetic license, and that Internet users may vent online if they state that they have no intention of acting upon their threats.”

Guess what? In June of 2015, the Supreme Court reversed Elonis’ conviction in an 8-1 decision.

So basically, social media is free speech and despite the ignorance and absurdity of the posts and videos constantly flooding the websites, the content is protected. As long as you don’t actually physically harm or endanger someone’s life of course.

But, and there is always a but – while the content maybe legally protected is it ethically right to allow any posts without some filtration system? That’s the quandary that Facebook and other social media companies are currently dealing with.

Justin Osofsky, vice president of global operations at Facebook, recently said, “As a result of this terrible series of events, we are reviewing our reporting flows to be sure people can report videos and other material that violates our standards as easily and quickly as possible.”

Social media can be a great tool if used for good – you know like communicating positive community-based information. For example, high school class reunions, information about a free community health care, Obamacare registration dates, etc.

Social media has given the voiceless a voice. And on the surface that sounds good – and normally it would be, but too many people have turned Frankenstein’s monster in to the evil beast that he was never intended to be.

And let me just make it clear – I am not some crazy ultra conservative. I am a free speech guy. I don’t think we should limit free speech or social media – I just want people to be more responsible about how they use the medium.

Man, I hate social media, but I sure do love my freedom of speech. Another one of life’s dilemmas.

Signing off from the Jacksonville Free Press,

Reggie Fullwood

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