Free Speech, Social Media, and how we can all stand up to Twitter terror

Posted on January 7, 2012 by

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Social media is quickly becoming the lifeblood of all communication, permanently altering the way people connect. Trendsetting behemoths such as Facebook and Twitter permeate every nook and cranny of our virtual and corporeal lives, saturating every fiber of human interaction with their omnipotence. We are bombarded with live and geo-tagged updates, incessant wall posts, enormous (occasionally reputation-damaging) photo albums, erratic relationship status fluctuations, mysterious pokes, chronological news-feeds, and ceaseless notifications. Buzzing phones and blinking computer screens freely deliver perfectly up-to-date, enormously detailed information about our fellow humans, ushering in a new age of unprecedented access to our private lives — intimacy between strangers previously unimaginable.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, social media developed into the ultimate, universal broadcasting mechanism. Breaking news stories, eyewitness video reports, and instantaneous public reactions crisscross the globe in the blink of an eye, changing the way information is distributed and processed. People no longer get their news from highly reputable, structured and syndicated television channels; instead, laconic, character-limited stories are expected to discharge at a breakneck pace from the effervescent and hyperactive world of unrestricted tweets and posts. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have blanketed humanity with an impenetrably dense, pulsating lattice of connections on every imaginable personal and social level. There is no doubt that social media has revolutionized our existence, but we are only beginning to discover its effects.

On December 30th, 2011, a CNN article entitled “Twitter lawsuit threatened over alleged Hezbollah aid” directed our attention to an issue with potentially enormous implications for social media and internet freedom. The article focuses on al-Manar, a Hezbollah-controlled television station which has an active Twitter account with approximately 7,500 followers. CNN reports that the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center has warned Twitter of potential legal implications should they refuse to forbid such organizations from using their website.

In a letter to Twitter, Shurat HaDin director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner wrote that “it has come to our attention that Twitter Inc. provides social media and associated services to such foreign terrorist organizations. Please be advised that [doing so] is illegal and will expose Twitter Inc. and its officers to both criminal prosecution and civil liability to American citizens and others victimized [by terrorist organizations].”

However, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Aden Fine notes that the United States government cannot impose selective censorship on private companies (such as Twitter) or force them to remove content posted or sanctioned by “unsavory” organizations. Over the past few years, instances of controversial material posted on social media websites have been approached with extreme caution, since it is not yet clear how to detect genuinely illicit activity while upholding the all-important right to free speech and freedom of information. Freedom of speech applies to any person or medium of communication, unless the speech is marked by libel, obscenity, or incites a crime. Nevertheless, making judgments of whether speech is libelous or incendiary often falls into a vast gray area — perhaps the biggest shortcoming of free speech as a broad philosophy. Case in point, Shurat HaDin managed to convince Facebook to remove a fan page created by Palestinian activists calling for a “Third Intifada” against Israel. While this is certainly a victory, Facebook made the decision to delete the fan page autonomously (mostly as a result of sharp user backlash) — it was not censored by law, even though the fan page clearly encouraged violence and conveyed a murderous intent.

In the same vein, what if Twitter refuses to suspend terrorist-sponsored accounts simply because many people disagree with their message? According to Darshan-Leitner, allowing terrorist organizations access to a powerful mass media tool is equivalent to providing a form of virtual aid — which is (of course) illegal in the United States. The CNN article aptly references social media’s role in the Arab Spring: the online services enabled anti-regime demonstrators to rapidly disseminate information about the protests, transforming ostensibly harmless social media websites into the driving force behind the uprisings. It is safe to say that social media played a key role in the coup d’état against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 — a clear indicator that virtual interaction can manifest itself within the real world to great effect. Even so, it is not incontrovertibly clear that a single terrorist-sponsored Twitter account poses a credible threat, so it is very difficult to either confirm or deny any wrongdoing on Twitter’s behalf.

While Shurat HaDin would like Twitter to change its policies without litigation, a single formal ruling in favor of compulsory censorship on social media platforms would send shockwaves through the public sphere and set an extremely dangerous precedent. If the government starts to decide what can or cannot be posted, tweeted, and streamed, censorship can quickly spiral out of control (see the Great Firewall of China). However, is it appropriate to stand idly by while organizations with explicitly malevolent intentions rally support through incredibly convenient, universally available virtual channels? This question is emerging as one of the most impermeable quandaries of a 21st century overwhelmed by the social media revolution.

The world has acquired an instrument of astonishing influence and limitless possibilities, but social media has also proven to be a double-edged sword. It has empowered people to rise up against intolerable oppression, spread vital news stories to millions at the speed of light, and connected the world with more unity than ever before. However, it can easily be harnessed to promote malicious causes. Indeed, free speech is far from perfect, since it allows for its abuse barely within the bounds of legality. For this reason, it is unrealistic to effectively censor all “bad” free speech while leaving “good” free speech unscathed — such superficial categorizations have become impossible to make in our rapidly evolving era of free information.

Instead, we should focus on utilizing social media to uphold our own values and messages. Facebook could not remove the “Third Intifada” page without sufficient basis, but the tremendously hostile responses from Facebook’s users gave the organization ample reason to reevaluate its decision. Social media is unique because it is almost entirely user-driven and exists solely because of its customers. Slightly altering a familiar quote from the popular film “V for Vendetta” gives us the following principle: users should not be afraid of the producer; the producer should be afraid of the users. If the customers are vocal enough, the company will respond. Therefore, the federal government should not determine what is or isn’t allowed to remain public — it is our responsibility to police the massive virtual world and discredit what the law cannot expose. Evil intentions will always exist, and we should not be afraid to use social media to channel our own right to free speech. So post, tweet, blog, tag, upload, and stream away, because ultimately, it is up to us to make our voices heard.

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Posted in: Israel