Do Social Media Sites Suppress Free Speech?

Let’s get this out of the way; if social media is suppressing freedom of speech, it’s because they’re allowed to do it. As much as the orange man rages that his words are being blocked, the truth is that we’re all given free access to these social media sites. Almost no one is paying anything to use them, so if it’s actually happening, it’s their right. You don’t like it… leave!

Me and my quiet friends

With that said, I decided to take a stab at what’s probably going on with social media and some people saying that their voices aren’t being heard. Truth be told, some of them are probably right about that. Those people probably deserve to be blocked; I have little problem with that. For others… well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I’m going to start with Facebook, since they’re the big dog in this hunt. With over a billion users, they’re probably the most prominent site for witch hunters looking for reasons to decry their policies. Let’s take a quick look at what’s going on there and why things aren’t always what they seem to be.

Something Facebook won’t allow are outright lies and misinformation. For instance, if you decide to go on the site and proclaim that climate change is fake as if it’s a fact, and you link to a lot of sites that agree with you, you’re probably going to get blocked at some point. Why? Because over 97% of scientific data goes against your belief, and you’re probably promoting an agenda that contradicts common sense.

You know who doesn’t get blocked? Flat earthers. Why? Because as stupid as their beliefs are, there’s not a single bit of harm that comes from them. Even if half the population on the planet one day said “hey, they’re right”, there’s no changing the fact that, not only is it round but it’s going to be round until the sun possibly consumes us; talk about scary!

People who are conservative are saying that their opinions are being suppressed and blocked, and that it’s because Facebook wants to silence their voices. Overall this is false; I know because here and there I see a lot of conservative views being professed, yet none of those folks have been blocked.

What’s the difference then? Two things.

One, and appearance that one’s words are hate speech will get you blocked, and it doesn’t matter who’s saying it. If you’re conservative and you voice an opinion that says people should be killed for expressing their rights, you’re getting blocked. Advocating for someone to be killed is hate speech; there’s no way to get around it.

Two, and this applies to everyone, many times it all comes down to who you’re connected to, along with who they’re connected to. For instance, maybe you’re connected to 20 people who love what you have to say and you’ve got their support. They show that support by liking what you’ve said; many of us love when we get those likes, love, hugs, etc.

Me, wedding singer

What that triggers is a notification to someone who might be connected to that person but isn’t connected to you seeing it; that’s the principle Facebook was built on. Now that person can come to your page, see what you wrote, and they have multiple choices. They can like what you’ve written like others. They can try to add you as a friend. They can comment. They can block you from ever showing up in their feed again.

Or they can report you; that’s the biggie here. Not only can they report what you’ve said, but they remain anonymous, which is both fair and not all that fair. If it’s only one person complaining, your content’s probably safe. But if there’s a significant number of people who complain, next you deal with the Facebook censors… at least the automated ones.

You don’t get live censors unless you decide to try to fight it or they suspend you and you’re trying to get out of Facebook jail; neither of those are pleasant (I don’t know from personal experience, but I know quite a few people who’ve been there for one reason or another).

In any case, you don’t get to tell “big lies“; you don’t get to incite hate or fear. You don’t get to go after someone personally (as in “I’m coming to get you type of speech). If you do, you’re content is probably not only going to get blocked, but you’re going to get banned, at least for a little while. It also doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on. Both conservatives and liberals get banned for things they say; they just tend to say things differently (yeah, I said it! lol).

I could go deeper into this, but the article might take a week to write. Instead, I’ve given a very brief overview of what happens, and now I’m moving to LinkedIn because some of the same things that happen on Facebook happen there.

LinkedIn is supposed to be a business site, but since they decided they want to be more like Facebook, they’ve had to endure people believing it’s like Facebook, to the extent that public discourse being civil has gone down the drain. True, because of the change the site’s growing and LinkedIn’s generating more revenue, but I doubt many users think things are better.

There’s been a lot of talk lately regarding LinkedIn and the posts and articles of black writers since the murder of George Floyd. Many are saying that black people’s posts and comments are being suppressed, and it’s even been written about by the New York Times.

Those folks are right… to a degree. LinkedIn employs the same thing that Facebook does; it allows people to report what they consider as disturbing content, and if there’s enough people complaining LinkedIn’s bots will silence it, at least temporarily.

LinkedIn, like Facebook, will also hide what it considers as hate speech, such as when one black writer posted something with the term “House Negros” in it. Bots don’t know context; they also don’t know what a writer’s race might be. If a white person had written that it would have been blocked; I’m not shocked that it was blocked, even though I’ve read a lot of things this particular writer has written and agreed with almost all of it.

Twitter’s a totally different animal. People can see the most horrific stuff being posted 24/7, and often don’t know if it’s a real person sharing it or a bot, or if it’s even from someone in another country trying to manipulate the minds of others for nefarious purposes. Even though Twitter’s my favorite platform, I acknowledge that sometimes it can be rough going for a lot of people.

Twitter does suppress some types of speech, but they’re less eager to do it. They will eliminate death threats and outright lies that attack the masses, especially from well known people. Yet, for the most part they let things go a bit more to the extreme than I like; I’ve seen some Twitter wars that are disheartening, and I’ll admit that here and there I feel emotionally involved… sometimes I even respond. That’s one of the problems of mob mentality; you can get dragged in easily without taking time to think about what could happen on the back end.

Even though I didn’t go as deep into this as I could have, I think we can agree that, indeed, social media does suppress certain types of free speech. I don’t have a problem with it in general; after all, I’m the guy who said speech is free but consequences aren’t. I’m also the guy who talked about ethics and social media, in an attempt to show people with diverse opinions that there are ways to express oneself without getting banned or blocked.

What can you do about it if you’re personally having to deal with this? Before I give my thoughts on that, I want to say that there might not be much you can do about it once you’ve irked the wrong person or crowd, unless you know who’s reporting you. Sometimes life is unfair to everyone; challenge your content being blocked and your suspensions, be nice about it, and hopefully things will be resolved positively for you.

With that said, here’s a few tips for you.

One, “word choice”. Being passionate about a topic is one thing; using certain language that evokes negative emotions is another. I might be saying that as an older person, but the results are what they are.

Two, when you get responses from people who disagree with you and that hate’s pretty strong, don’t respond; block. By blocking people, they can’t report you or your content, and most of the time they’re not worth it anyway. Speak to your audience, but realize others will see it if your audience responds by visibly liking it.

Three, don’t connect with everyone, especially if you don’t know them. I have comparatively low numbers of people I’m connected to on all my social media sites. I have way more on Twitter than any of the others, but the ratio of who I follow versus who’s following me is almost 5 to 1; nothing I can do about that. However, in general Twitter doesn’t show specific conversations you’re having with another person unless it involves shared content created by a third party.

That’s all I have for now. Get out there and express your opinion… try being nice about it. 😀

12 thoughts on “Do Social Media Sites Suppress Free Speech?”

  1. A well-reasoned piece, Mitch, as always. It’s useful to remember that algorithmic blocking is a blunt instrument, and there doesn’t seem to be much human review.

    Of course, there are also people getting suppressed even though they don’t use inflammatory terms. I don’t know what the answer is. However, thanks for the tip about blocking the trolls. I do that already, but your tip suggests it makes sense to do it immediately to avoid being the victim of false reporting.

    1. Thanks Sharon. In the cases you mentioned, I tend to believe it’s a version of trolling. Unlike on Twitter and YouTube where people can create a bunch of fake profiles, LinkedIn seems to be better at flushing them out. Still, doesn’t mean a random person looking for specific topics couldn’t go around flagging many of them. The problem with trolls is that they also want to cause controversy by saying something salacious, which is why it’s better to block them before they get another shot at you.

  2. For sure free speech is suppressed everywhere and social media platforms are not an exception. I’ve recently saw statuses and events disappearing from the timelines an a whole business pages getting blocked for months. All major social network does this. Same applies for YouTube and some streaming services like Twitch.

    1. Hey Carl; it’s been a long time! As for social media and things being blocked, I tend to believe that most of us aren’t getting blocked because we’ve taken care of how we say what we want to without it being over the top. You know how I am; I share my opinions when I have a strong sense that something needs to be said. Yet, I temper how I say things and I know my audience; to date, I’ve never had anything suppressed because of what I’ve said… though I do know sites like LinkedIn will suppress certain people for other reasons.

      1. I often wonder more about what’s NOT suppressed than about what is. The experiments I did this summer with Sharon’s content were disturbing; Black writers writing non-inflammatory anti-racist posts were not necessarily blocked (although, in some cases, it appeared they were being, I still think that had a lot to do with that “blunt instrument” of a poorly coded algorithm), but often they received far less visibility than they deserved, and less than they got if I shared that same content.

        Having said that, though, I know that there was a lot of keyword and hashtag suppression. It’s going to be hard for a bit of code to tell if “BLM” is being used in an anti-racist fashion or if it’s being denigrated as a “terrorist movement” by white supremacists. So I think there was a lot of scurrying behind the scenes to deal with the events of summer 2020, and social media got it wrong as often as they got it right.

        And as you said, there’s the issue of trolls and spurious reporting. I’ve also noticed a HUGE uptick of late in imposter accounts on both Instagram and LinkedIn – it got so bad that I locked down my IG account while I go prune my followers. Interestingly, it’s made my Instagram feed more interesting. I may leave it private, but it’s a little less fun that way. I wish Facebook would implement privacy settings on Instagram like they have on Facebook, so not every IG post had to be PUBLIC or PRIVATE.

      2. I find Instagram fairly easy to deal with. Actually, I find all of them pretty easy to deal with except for LinkedIn. It shocks me that with everything going on there’s still so much stupid stuff showing up from people whose profiles put them and their companies in danger of being called out and dealing with boycotts. I know many people on both sides believe their content is being suppressed, and it’s hard to get behind across the board for the very thing you and I said; algorithms can’t determine the difference between something being addressed in a positive or negative context. I’d hate to be the one having to create algorithms to try dealing with it.

      3. Hey Mitch, yes I think a couple of years, when i was inactive. Yeah, you are right on the spot. More and more often I notice this on Facebook, but on Youtube, whole accounts have been deleted recently.

      4. YouTube’s problem is different. Too many fake accounts, and too many accounts that haven’t created anything. Many of them tend to leave the meanest and vile comments; I have no problem with YouTube cracking down on them.

    1. Actually, you’ve very careful. I think in the entire year of 2020, the only controversial things you’ve had on your Facebook page were either put there by someone else or you posted a link to your blog that didn’t say a whole lot unless someone clicked on the link and visited it (like when you shared pictures of people not wearing masks; ugh). Even on your blog, you rarely get deep into tough topics. Sure, you’ve had people here and there disagree with something you wrote more forcefully than what you wrote deserved, but in general it wasn’t a topic that anyone would suppress or censor on social media. Thus, you’ve very cautious, and have been in all the years I’ve known you.

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