“True free speech”. This is what Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised the world before he offered to purchase the social media platform Twitter. The offer was accepted on April 25. After Musk’s purchase and his declaration of free speech, many people began discussing what this free speech would mean for the future of Twitter, and whether the true free speech on social media that Musk promised is really a good thing.
Over the past few decades, social media has become significant both as a form of communication and as a source of information. However, this has also created an important dilemma that needs to be addressed. Free speech is the right for everyone to express their opinions without fear of retaliation. Although free speech is a basic human right that needs to be provided for everyone, it can also lead to numerous problems.
Why we Need Regulations
A few examples of these problems would be the rampant hate speech and cyberbullying that is happening on social media. Hate speech is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as "public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation", and cyberbullying as “the activity of using the internet to harm or frighten another person: especially by sending them unpleasant messages”.
Research from Statistica shows that the amount of hate speech that had to be censored on Facebook is in the tens of millions, with 17.4 million cases the fourth quarter of 2021. The harm that hate speech can cause may not be obvious at first, but analysis by social scientists have pointed to a link between online hate speech and hate crimes towards minorities, such as lynching, mass shooting and ethnic cleansing.
Cyberbullying may also run rampant without any guidelines. Cyberbullying is already a serious problem. Data from the Korea Communications Commission shows that nearly 30% of Korean students have experienced cyberbullying. Many more digital crimes, such as doxing; revealing people’s personal information online, and fraud, have also become more common.
Misinformation is another huge risk with an unregulated social media platform, made even more prevalent after the COVID-19 crisis. Many people and companies on social media spread misinformation about the COVID-19 crisis for fame or profit. As of 2022, 219 products claiming to cure COVID have been disproved and seized by the U.S Food and Drug Administration.
Vaccine risks are also prey to misinformation. Fraudulent research linking vaccination to autism sparked a new wave of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. This so-called “anti-vaxxer” movement ended up causing numerous people to be unvaccinated, compromising herd immunity and bringing back old diseases such as measles and monkeypox. Measles ended up killing 140,000 people in 2018 and outbreaks continue all over the globe. From wrong information such as vaccines causing autism or spreading fake, pseudoscientific “cures”, misinformation on social media has caused much harm to the public and will continue to do so.
People who deem social media regulation as necessary point out that regulations are what combats these serious problems. Damien Collins, chair of the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, said what is illegal offline should be illegal online, comparing the lax restrictions on the current social media environment to the lawless wild west. According to them, regulations are like laws that prevent crime on the internet, turning the wild west into civilized society.
How Regulation is Abused
However, regulations can be abused as well, in the form of censorship. Numerous dictatorships employ censorship in order to cull anti-governmental information under the guise of wanting the greater good for society. Korea has already seen the follies of censorship during the Jeon Du-hwan administration, when the government began censoring the media. This led to human rights violations like the 5.18 Gwangju revolution going unnoticed by the Korean populace for a long time. These atrocities may have never been discovered if not for foreign journalists. In an age where so much information is spread through social media, abuse of social media regulations will end up having the same effect of deceiving the masses for an agenda.
More examples abroad include Russia and China. In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, Russia has shut down several social media sites such as Facebook and Youtube in their country, as well as creating new laws that punish anyone spreading ‘false information’ about the invasion. They also prohibited calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine an invasion, only referring to it as a ‘special military operation’.
China’s internet censorship is regarded as the most invasive in the world, being referred to as the “Great Firewall of China”. Data points to 18,000 websites blocked by the firewall as of 2002, and experts believe that the number has only grown exponentially. Many international sites are banned in China, forcing Chinese citizens to use Chinese sites, which are controlled by the Communist Party of China to spread their propaganda. China also uses censorship to mask human rights violations, such as the Uyghur genocide, the Hong Kong uprising and the Tiananmen massacre. The Uyghur genocide is not unlike the oppression of Korea during the Japanese occupation, with reeducation camps, cultures being erased, and rape and murder being commonplace.
People arguing for free speech, such as Elon Musk, point to how easy it is for censorship to be exploited for an agenda, saying it undermines the fundamental principles of democracy. Many leaders can be seen spreading their own agenda through censorship already, such as the ones mentioned above and numerous others. If regulations continue to grow on social media, they might turn into platforms for propaganda as well.
Freedom of speech is a basic human right deserved by everyone. However, with the rise of social media, suppressing the rights of others and doing others harm with this freedom of speech has become much easier. Thus, in the modern world, it has become a very important issue to find a balance between free speech and regulation. Communication technology will only continue to improve as time goes on. If society is to keep pace with these advancements, setting an example today is very important.