COMMENTARY: Write Privilege — why don’t people understand the limits of freedom of speech?

If that definition of insanity about doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of a different outcome is even a little true, then social media, and our use of it, may prove that most of us are a little insane.

Why do so many people conflate freedom of speech with the belief that their posts on the internet are somehow owned by them?

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There’s this odd thing about social media that is both propagated and vastly misunderstood — that freedom of speech means you can say anything you want, and the social media platforms you use for free owe you the space to broadcast that speech.

If you were standing on a street expressing yourself out loud, chances are you would have to rent that space. If you wanted your message to find an audience beyond the random humans walking by, you’d have to purchase a bullhorn or time on a radio station or marketers to shill for you.

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But the internet owes you free protected space to wax on about anything you like?

You would think that 15 years after Facebook and Twitter appeared and began disrupting our lives, people would understand that everything they post, share, and like, leaves that user’s control as soon as they hit publish, but no, here we are, still arguing about these basic tenants of ownership and rights.

“I think a lot of people forget that, like other freedoms we enjoy, our freedom of expression is not absolute,” says Jennifer Mathers McHenry, founding partner of Mathers McHenry & Co.

“It is subject to certain restrictions at law that are designed to balance competing freedoms and values. One person’s freedom of expression does not give that person a ‘carte blanche’ to interfere with another person’s rights and freedoms.”

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That seems to be a realization many people come to after the fact. Time and again, we see people frantically deleting their content from these social media platforms, defending their right to discuss murder and mayhem in private groups, all while attacking the businesses behind these applications for censoring their words. They’re the only ones who should be allowed to censor their content. They are the arbiters of their truth and any who try to silence them are part of the “cancel culture” taking over their public internet spaces, which again, they have not paid for and believe to be theirs.

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Where does this disconnect come from between the general public’s understanding of freedom of expression and its right to say whatever they want on social media?

“The reason that they do this is that they really have this idea that free speech, as we understand it in the United States, means that you can say any old s**t,” says Mutale Nkonde, a fellow in the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University

“In actual fact, our (U.S.) first amendment right is to protect us from criticizing our government, to strengthen our democracy in such a way that as citizens of our country, we can be vocal of our government.”

Platform regulation is too important to be left to Americans alone

The day after Donald Trump lost the election, the downloads of the Parler app skyrocketed, and QAnon followers eagerly awaited the inauguration of Joe Biden as president because they believed (and kept spreading the misinformation) that this was the moment when all the conspiracy theories that have filled social media for months would come true.

The sky didn’t fall on Biden and the Democrats, which left a whole swath of people on the internet confused and unsure of their next steps to take back their increasingly virulent posts.

“People are often shocked to find that what they do outside of work on social media can have consequences for their employment, and in the most severe cases, can lead to their employment being terminated with cause,” McMathers Henry says.

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So, instead of scrambling to find a new social medium where they can be uncensored without fear of legal or societal reprisals, this could be a wake-up call for the conversations about future acts of unlawful social media posts. Because nothing is truly ever deleted from the internet.

Angela Misri is an award-winning journalist and novelist, and the digital director at The Walrus. Follow her @karmicangel on Twitter.

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