Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, have become an increasingly important space for free speech, with users utilizing these platforms to express their opinions and engage in discussions about a wide range of topics. Despite the many benefits of free speech on social media, there are also a number of unintended consequences that can arise from this freedom.
Free speech on social media has led to a growth in Hate speech, Self harm content, Misinformation, Disinformation, Fake news, and most importantly, Mental health distress. Additionally, there is a school of thought that free speech never really existed in the first place, and social media is the only way to achieve this. Again, we ask, at what cost?
This article explores the impact free speech has on social media users.
The growth of Hate Speech
One major issue with free speech on social media is the prevalence of online harassment and abuse. Social media has become a common outlet for people to attack others based on race, religion, gender, or other personal characteristics. These targeted attacks can lead to feelings of fear and intimidation among those who are targeted, as well as make them less likely to participate in public discourse online. Additionally, large numbers of hateful comments can overwhelm and drown out more constructive conversations, which can discourage users from expressing their opinions and prevent important issues from being discussed.
Take for instance the hate comments published on Twitter about Meghan Markel because of the Harry and Meghan Netflix show. Or the racist comments made against the black players in the English national football team when they lost the Euros finals. Most of these comments started on social media platforms like Twitter. What makes it more concerning is the anonymity social media provides trolls. They are not required to use real names or provide real details about themselves on social media. This might protect whistleblowers and activists that choose to remain anonymous because they fear reprisal. But it also encourages hate because anonymity means no accountability.
The spread of Fake News
Another issue that has arisen with free speech on social media is the proliferation of fake news and propaganda. Social media platforms such as Twitter have become a primary source of information for many people, so the spread of false or misleading information through these channels can have significant consequences. This not only threatens public discourse by spreading misinformation, but also undermines democratic institutions by undermining trust in government and other authoritative sources.
The former president of the United States, Donald Trump was known to utilise fake news in the form of misinformation or disinformation, to garner a strong social media following and also incite hate. He did this throughout his first term as President and continued doing it even after he lost the presidential election, almost inciting a coup in the process. There are also antivaxxers and white supremacists who also spread false information on social media for their own benefit.
The impact on Mental Health
On its own, social media can be as addictive as opioids. The younger generation spends more time on social media than they do physically interacting with each other. They are exposed to good content as well as hate content aimed at them in the name of free speech. A lot of people have reported being bullied on social media because of how they look. In some cases this has led to depression, self harm and even suicide.
Body dysmorphia is another mental health issue being fuelled by free speech on social media. Influencers and celebrities make videos bragging about how slim they are, or how much muscular they've become. This is what social media companies like Instagram and TikTok call "Video Content", but they fail to realise that some content can have an adverse impact on the mental health of people consuming them.
Yes, these celebrities and influencers are exercising their right to free speech, but what they don't actively state in their social media posts is how much steroids some have taken to gain muscle or how much plastic surgery they have done to lose weight or to get a narrower waist line. They don't tell their followers the price they pay for looking the way they do, because all they care about is their brand.
Least we forget, free speech has allowed people post content directly about self harm on social media. Content which has led to the deaths of teenagers and adults alike.
Despite these challenges, it is important to recognize that free speech on social media also has some positive effects. For example, this freedom allows for more diverse voices and perspectives to be heard online, providing a platform for marginalized groups to share their experiences and raise awareness about issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. Additionally, social media can be an important tool for bringing about change and increasing civic engagement, as we have seen with the widespread use of hashtags like "#MeToo" or "Black Lives Matter."
While there are certainly drawbacks to free speech on social media, it is crucial that we continue to advocate for this fundamental right. By being vigilant about monitoring and regulating misinformation online, encouraging more diverse voices in public discourse, and providing platforms for civic engagement, we can help ensure that social media remains a positive force in our society.