Note: I’ve been busy with preparing for the new semester; trying to get my lesson plans in order has been wonderful but stressful.
Over the years, there have been several articles and TV segments on how there are consequences for free speech and that (majority white) people need to stop acting as if they’re entitled to consequence-free speech. This idea is consistently addressed every time there is a major upset regarding someone, usually after a high-profile person of some sort, who has engaged in harassment and hate speech toward specific individuals or groups of people. In the case of this segment, when Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulous for harassing Leslie Jones and Disney completely decided to drop PewDiePie.
I feel like this concept is summed up in a scientific theory that most people first learn in physical science, which can also be applied to social situations. If you’ve forgotten Newton’s Third Law of Motion, it’s the following.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Just as this law is true in physics, it can also be seen in pretty much every social situation. This is largely why people have to take a lot of things into consideration such as social cues, context, location and environment, and the other people who are involved or could be impacted by their actions or speech.
It’s not uncommon for people who scream about the consequences that someone has “suffered” to also respond with “it’s the death of free speech,” as if they’re completely incapable of saying the derogatory slurs and are being forced to self-censor just because one company removed a platform. They get upset, feeling as if those social media companies should be providing space for people to say whatever they want even if it contradicts the policies and rules that a user agrees to obey upon signing up for an account. This completely neglects one glaring fact: they’re not bound by the First Amendment. These users continue to get angry at companies for distancing themselves from certain high-profile people, as if they’re not allowed to protect their brand from someone who is clearly incapable of creating content that coincides with their current interests. So let’s look at how different social media companies have “censored” their users:
Reddit, after Ellen Pao resigned (following a slew of racialised misogyny in the form of complaints after it had been announced that they’d ban harassing subreddits) and was replaced with Steve Huffamn, decided that they wanted to appeal to both potential advertisers and their users by hiding racist subreddits. They wanted to encourage a ‘free marketplace of ideas’, keeping free speech open by ‘quarantining’ the more questionable subreddits. Clearly, that option was wildly successful because advertisers mostly just stayed away (and the users’ behaviours and responses toward advertising didn’t help). Then again, the fact that they can’t seem to get organised probably hasn’t be very beneficial for them, either. Recently, however, they banned a few prominent subreddits dedicated to the alt-right for doxing people and excessive harassment. All of these go against Reddit’s (loosely and sparingly utilised) content policy:
Reddit is quite open and pro-free speech, but it is not okay to post someone’s personal information, or post links to personal information.
We do not tolerate the harassment of people on our site, nor do we tolerate communities dedicated to fostering harassing behavior.
Do not post content that incites harm against people or groups of people.
Facebook has a policy that has been contested over time for some egregious errors in how the platform functions. Focusing on censorship alone, Facebook has had issues in the past of banning or deactivating accounts of women posting pictures of breastfeeding (a perfectly normal human function); on Instagram’s platform, they deleted photos Rupi Kaur posted that showed how periods affect those with uteruses (later apologising to her). It wasn’t until mid-2015 that both Facebook and Instagram, challenged by these and other similar instances, decided to change their definitions about cdxwhat constituted ‘nudity’ (but you still can’t show nipples on a woman).
However, they have had issues about how banning people works. Because users are capable of flagging comments as abusive, Facebook ends up banning people who have been swarmed because of groups who disagree with them. Meanwhile, there are actually awful groups that never get removed and are allowed to perpetuate hate speech. This goes directly against their own views about controversial, harmful and hate speech on their platform, while stating that they don’t tolerate bullying and harassment in their terms:
You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.
This is despite a history where people, such as Angela Merkel, have challenged Facebook to ban neo-Nazi groups, having to pull pages of Italian neo-Nazis after people lodged complaints, and watching the US government get sued by grandstanding anti-Muslim groups for Facebook “censoring” them. And then it’s been found that the secret groups on Facebook can actually be harmful and act as echo chambers.
I don’t feel the need to quote more than two social media companies since their rules are essentially the same, and it is largely dependent upon them to enforce them. The point is this: When you sign up for their service, you agree to obey the rules they set. If you don’t, you risk having your account deactivated or deleted, and you might even be banned; it’s entirely up to them. It’s their service that you’re using (usually for free), which means that crying about ‘free speech’ is absurd. So if you decide to post a picture of your Nazi salute on Twitter, be prepared to get banned. Posting alt-right propaganda and hate speech? Possible ban (and then people who were rightfully banned will go and claim it’s because of PC culture instead of them harassing people and then go create fake black accounts). At no point in the process is your ‘right to free speech’ being impeded.
Take all this information and now apply it to contracts with other companies. Milo clearly doesn’t have the right to publish a book through a specific publisher; they get to have the final say. CPAC doesn’t have to allow Milo or Richard into their space if they disagree with them on anything (but still allow known white nationalist, Steve Bannon); it’s not a requirement that they give them a platform should they say something that is found disagreeable. Breitbart can fire Milo, should they decide to, in response to the fact that their staff will leave if they don’t; it’s their choice. PewDiePie doesn’t get to make the decisions for Disney’s Maker Studios because it’s their contract, even though he was given “editorial freedom” (and may have ruined it for everyone after him).
Here’s a personal anecdote. My last few contracts for work, and this is not uncommon where I currently live, have stated that I am not allowed to do anything that “harms the reputation of the institution.” This even applied to people who made a complaint on a private Facebook account that only your friends could see, as I have worked with numerous individuals who’ve had their co-workers friended and had screenshots reported to their bosses and superintendents even though the account was not public and couldn’t possibly hurt the institution in question.
All contracts have variations on this concept, regardless of whether or not it directly references ‘bringing harm to their reputation’. This is part of at-will work, in most cases; there are numbers of employees who have been fired for their comments, regardless of if they are benign or legitimate complaints about where you work on social media or if you’ve said something harmful that later leads to you being fired because they don’t want you to represent them as an employee. This is because there is no Constitutional free speech at work.
And, for people like these men, social media is their workplace; they don’t have a right to be there.
Next: The social responsibility of businesses and how responding to controversial issues usually helps them, especially today.