In the traditional sense, of course it is. The idea of free speech should always be upheld, without question. However, when it comes to the 21st century, this two and a half centuries old amendment poses extreme roadblocks. Here, I will be discussing how the First Amendment inhibits the ability to tackle extremism and hatred on social media platforms.
One of the things I will be highlighting is how other countries are able to enact legislation to try and deal with the ever-growing hate that festers on social media. They’re able to do so because they do not have a “First Amendment.” The idea of free speech is simply engrained into democracies; they do not need an archaic document in which they are forever bound to tell them that. Here in the U.S., as we all know, congress can be woefully slow and inefficient, with a particular emphasis on refusing to update outdated laws.
The First Amendment successfully blocks any government attempt to regulate social media platforms. Any attempt to do so is met by mostly conservatives, yelling about the government wanting to take away free speech, and the courts will/would not allow the legislation to stand. This in turn means Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, and all the other platform never have to worry about the white supremist and other extremist rhetoric that is prevalent on their platform. Even further than that, most, if not all their algorithms, push those vile posts to hundreds of thousands of people. We are “not allowed” to introduce laws that will come up with a baseline to regulate platforms, in order to crack down on the terrorism that flourishes there. Just as you are not allowed to scream fire in a move theatre, it should not be allowed to post and form groups to spread misinformation, white supremacy, racism, etc. Those topics do not serve the interests of greater society. Yes, it would make it a lot harder for people to be able to easily share their thoughts, no matter how appalling they may be. However, not allowing it to spread online where in 30 seconds millions of people can see it, is not taking away someone’s free speech right. Platforms don’t even necessarily have to delete the posts; just change their algorithms to stop promoting misinformation and hate, promote truth instead even if the truth is boring. They won’t do that though because promoting lies is what makes them money, and it’s always money over the good of the people. Another reason why this doesn’t limit people’s free speech is because they can still form in person groups, talk about it in private, start an email chain etc. The idea behind trying to regulate what can be posted on social media websites is to make the world a better place for all; to make it harder for racist ideas and terrorism to spread, especially to young, impressionable children/young adults. This shouldn’t be a political issue; shouldn’t we all want to limit the spread of hate?
It is hard for me to imagine the January 6th insurrection on our capital occurring had we had regulations on social media in place. A lot of the groups that planned the insurrection had “stop the steal” groups and other related election-fraud conspiracy pages on Facebook. Imagine if we had in place a law that said social media platforms had to take down posts and pages eliciting false information that could be inciteful or detrimental to the security of the United States? I realize that is broad discretion, the legislation would have to be worded very narrowly, and those decisions to remove posts should be made with the highest level of scrutiny. Had we had a regulation like that in place, these groups would not have been able to reach as wide of an audience. I think Ashley Babbitt and Officer Sicknick would still be alive had Facebook been obligated to take those pages and posts down.
Alas, we are unable to even consider legislation to help address this cause because the courts and a lot of congress people refuse to acknowledge that we must update our laws and redefine how we read the First Amendment. The founders could never have imagined the world we live in today. Congress and the Courts need to stop pretending that a piece of paper written over a hundred years ago is some untouchable work from god. The founders wrote the First Amendment to ensure no one would be thrown in jail for speaking their mind, so that people who hold different political views could not be persecuted, to give people the ability to express themselves. Enacting legislation to prevent blatant lies, terrorism, racism, and white supremacy from spreading as easily online does not go against the First Amendment. It is not telling people they can’t have those views; it is not throwing anyone in prison or handing out fines for those views, and white supremacist or other racist ideas are not “political discourse.” Part of the role of government is to protect the people, to do what is right for society as a whole, and I fail to see how telling social media platforms they need to take down these appalling posts is outweighed by this idea that “nearly everything is free speech, even if it poisons the minds of our youth and perpetuates violence because that’s what the First Amendment says.”
Let’s now look at the United Kingdom and what they are able to do because they do not have any law comparable to the First Amendment. In May of 2021, the British Parliament introduced the Online Safety Bill. If passed into law, the bill will place a duty of care on social media firms and websites to ensure they take swift action to remove illegal content, such as hate crimes, harassment and threats directed at individuals, including abuse which falls below the criminal threshold. As currently written, the bill would also require the social media companies to limit the spread of and remove terroristic material, suicidal content, and child sexual abuse. The companies would be mandated to report postings of those kind to the authorities. Lastly, the Online Safety Bill would require companies to safeguard freedom of expression, and reinstate material unfairly removed. This includes forbidding tech firms from discriminating against particular political viewpoints. The bill reserves the right for Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator) to hold them accountable for the arbitrary removal of journalistic content.
The penalties for not complying with the proposed law would be significant. Social Media companies that do not comply could be fined up to 10% of their net profits or $25 million. Further, the bill would allow Ofcom to bring criminal actions against named senior managers whose company does not comply with Ofcom’s request for information.
It will be interesting to see how the implementation of this bill will go if it is passed. I believe it is a good steppingstone to reign in the willful ignorance displayed by these companies. Again, it is important these bills be carefully scrutinized, otherwise you may end up with a bill like the one proposed in India. While I will not be discussing their bill at length in this post, you can read more about it here. In short, India’s bill is widely seen as autocratic in nature; giving the government the ability to fine and or criminally prosecute social media companies and their employees if they fail to remove content that the government does not like (for instance, people who are criticizing their new agriculture regulations).
Bringing this ship back home, can you imagine a bill like Britain’s ever passing in the US, let alone even being introduced? I certainly can’t because we still insist on worshiping an amendment that is 230 years old. The founders wrote the bill based on the circumstances of their time, they could never have imagined what today would look like. Ultimately, the decision to allow us to move forward and adopt our own laws to start regulating social media companies is up to the Supreme Court. Until the Supreme Court wakes up and decides to allow a modern reading/interpretation of the First Amendment, any law to hold companies accountable is doomed to fail. It is illogical to put a piece of paper over the safety and well being of Americans, yet we consistently do just that. We will keep seeing reports of how red flags were missed and as a result people were murdered or how Facebook pages helped spread another “Big Lie” which results in another capital sieged. All because we cannot move away from our past to brighten our futures.
What would you do to help curtail this social dilemma?