In the ancient world, censorship was considered a legitimate method for controlling the population’s lives and morals. Speaking out and original thought were the road to punishment or even death. One famous case was that of Socrates, who was condemned to death by poison in 399 BC for ‘corruption of youth and acknowledgement of unorthodox divinities”. Although this sounds terrible and extreme, this same notion of strict censorship in the ‘public interest’ is still enforced in places like China, and, try speaking your mind in North Korea.
Free speech, the idea that all people are entitled to express their views, grievances and criticisms, is a cherished right in free societies. In the United States this right is enshrined in first amendment to the Constitution that says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.
After World War II, in 1954, members of the nascent United Nations signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and many countries amended their legal systems to comply with Article 19 that holds that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
Of course, when these declarations were signed there was no such thing as social media and their values are now under pressure from extremists, anti-democratic groups and terrorists are using them to spread their harmful messages. Governments around the world, including the European Union, are appealing to online media organisations to censor xenophobic and discriminatory material, fake news and terrorist propaganda, and many are calling for a reframing of the laws, regulations and ethical codes that govern social media.
Despite what the fierce proponents of these rights may say, it makes no sense to apply rules created decades and even hundreds of years ago to our modern society, saturated with information. They were not intended to protect society from the rantings of hate-filled extremists, discriminatory comments, threats, offensive images and harmful misinformation. Media organisations are gradually changing their regulations, but barely a day goes without a news report about some new misuse of the internet.
The line has to be drawn somewhere, so use your own freedom to speak out and protest, complain and report. In my case, I voted with my mouse and completely opted out of social media. Going cold turkey from Facebook and Twitter caused a few withdrawal symptoms but I now have new space and time to fill with books, and hobbies and music. Perhaps you should think about it… it’s lovely and quiet on the other side.