How far is too far? They say there’s a fine line between love and hate, and Elon Musk has exemplified that concept with his purchase of Twitter earlier this year, which according to the BBC was done to “help humanity” rather than increase his wealth, which after some stock drops has him dethroned as the world’s second richest person. Free speech has become an especially polarizing topic in recent years, with politics becoming more intense due to social media platforms allowing information to be spread much faster and be more widespread than ever before.
The controversy surrounding Twitter currently stems from the new policies implemented under Musk’s administration. Under this new era of Twitter, many topics that were once considered hate speech and thus banned from the platform are now freely allowed on Musk’s version of the popular social media app. According to the New York Times, there is an unusual increase in hate speech on Twitter, as evidenced by the numbers of daily average amounts of hate speech. For instance, the usage of slurs or degrading language against black people per day has increased from 1,282 times per day before Musk to an average of 3,876 times per day under Twitter’s new direction. The daily average of hate speech increases amounts to 202%, while the usage of the N-word increased by 500% during the first twelve hours after Musk’s takeover.
Many other vulnerable groups have also seen increases in hate directed towards them, such as the LGBTQ+ community. There has been a 60% increase in the creation of accounts associated with ISIS and a 61% increase in antisemitic posts, according to The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks reports of antisemitic comments online. Although we can clearly see a rise in hate speech since Musk took over Twitter, we have also seen headlines of people with powerful platforms making comments that should not be recognized as protected speech. As Forbes has laid out, beginning in October, Kanye “Ye” West has gone on numerous sprees of public appearances in which he has at length made antisemitic comments, criticized Black Lives Matter, made fatphobic comments, and more, all without any semblance of regret. This has been controversial since Twitter’s new “freedom” can spark conflict among users and exacerbate problems the country has been trying to deal with, such as discrimination against minorities.
Is this protected speech?
Law students learn about rights and liberties—but also about obligations. For instance, in the USA, our First Amendment right includes freedom of speech; however, jurisprudence has set out boundaries between what is considered free speech and what is protected speech. Free speech, like any other right, evolves with time, as seen in landmark law cases about free speech in the USA. Some examples include Schenck v. United States (1919), Abrams v. United States (1919), West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), and Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). To further understand this dilemma, one needs to understand the basics of the First Amendment’s free speech clause. In theory, the free speech clause is meant to ensure people’s rights to express their opinion against government censorship —a negative right to shield them from the government and enhance democracy. However, back in November, Karine Jean-Pierre, White House Press Secretary, said that social media platforms have a responsibility to take action on misinformation and hate that falls within their jurisdiction. This was a confusing comment since the government cannot punish Twitter for refusing to censor what one may consider hate or offensive speech since it is a private company. These remarks, however, have the potential to hurt a variety of users, raising ethical concerns about social media and the way it is employed.
Twitter and many other social media platforms are, in theory, meant to spread information and, in an ideal world, lift each other up instead of bringing those around you down. After Musk took over the administration, it is currently unclear if, after the policy changes and mass layoffs, any policies may be enacted to moderate hate speech or if that is even a possibility with the lack of manpower to keep up with moderation due to the new leadership changing personnel so drastically. As an advocate for absolutely free speech and after so much backlash between politically polarized people, Musk tweeted, “You know Twitter is being fair when extremists on the far right and far left are simultaneously upset.”
In this age of technology and strong social media presence, it’s necessary to understand that people will have different opinions and views, but the moment you say something that violates someone else’s rights or puts them at risk, that is when you have gone too far. When you send death threats or make fun of someone’s culture, you have crossed the line of protected speech. Everyone has the right to live their lives and express themselves, as long as you don’t impede on someone else’s rights or safety.
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