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  • Writer's pictureKralingen

Social Media as Online Public Space

Updated: Jan 24

Should social media companies edit content? Some say no and cite freedom of speech. Others say yes and cite hate speech. What is the way out of this conundrum? That answer becomes clear when we start to see social media for what it truly has become: our shared online public space. And in the real world public space you have freedom of speech. Yet, crucially, you also behave.

Social media are right now at the center of conspiracy theories, racism and cancel-culture. Let's just say they're not very 'social' at the moment. So, the social media companies are asked to better monitor the content. You may think that is either good or bad. But I'm arguing something else: it's becoming unavoidable. Let's get to the whole story on our digital streets.

The Paradox of Freedom

Freedom is a paradox. Freedom is absolute... as long as it does not touch the absolute freedom of the other person. So while freedom is at once absolute, it is also relative to the other person. It's both at the same time. A paradox. Why? Well, you're not alone in this world. You have freedom. But so does the other person. So, we have to find a way to engage each other and make sure freedoms of other people aren't taken away by exercising yours. Your freedom should not trump the freedom of others. Or vice versa. Freedom is something you both have, and at the same time, extend to others.

The best example is our public space. You are free to go anywhere you like. You can turn left or right at your whim. But so can everybody else. That's why we've installed traffic lights and roundabouts and such, to make sure things don't turn chaotic. And we have a behavioral rule: we try to give space and not bump into each other. And when we accidentally do, we apologize.

Freedom of speech works the same in the real world. You are absolutely totally free to speak your mind, even if it is hurtful and discriminating to others. However, most of the time, we try to empathize and not go overboard. Plus, speaking your mind doesn't make you right. Remember, the other person has freedom too. And crucially, they are free to close their garden gate on you. Or kick you out of the bar.

Does this work the same online? Well, if you use your speech to hurt, you are free to do so... but the other person is free to ask you to go speak your hurt somewhere else. Or cancel advertising around you. Or block you.

It's freedom, baby. It works both ways.

The Rise of the Keyboard Warrior

In the real world public space of schools, offices, bars, restaurants and more, we don't go about bullying each other. Plus, there is a natural barrier to bullying in the real world. If you wish to hurt or insult someone, or lie to them or push a conspiracy, you'll have to look them in the eye doing so. And this risks you being exposed for your hurtful behavior. The problem online is of course, that none of this applies. We can't look the bully in the eye through the screen. We have no code of conduct. Behind that desk, a bully is safe to share bad stuff without consequences.

This has resulted in the rise of the 'Keyboard Warrior': the guy (and, in some cases also girl) sitting behind his computer spamming, insulting, bullying and spreading conspiracies and fake news. The 'internet troll' or 'digital bully' if you will. As you've undoubtedly experienced yourself, this person just gives you low blow after low blow, hoping you'll react, so they have some attention. Even if it's negative attention, a reaction will make them feel validated and important. In other words; in control.

It's all about that control. Over you yes, but more importantly, over themselves. When someone turns bully, there is always an underlying insecurity at work. A psychological need beneath the surface. This could be a deep need that was created because of a childhood trauma. But it doesn't have to be that severe. Just as long as the context is strong enough, the need for control can rise up in anyone. It could also be a temporary need, created simply because of an outside force that is too overwhelming.

Like having difficulty accepting a global pandemic.

The mind on conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are a prime example. We are all prone to them because the human mind needs explanations. And when events are random, chaotic and happen out of our control, it is survival instinct to look for patterns and explanations. It is completely natural to do so, and part of our genetic fabric. Even if we know that cloud doesn't really look like a sheep, we can't help seeing it anyway.

It is however, not always helpful. Or true for that matter. A perfect example is the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. To this day, we cannot accept that it might have been a lone gun man. Just look at me, I just wrote down the words 'might have been' instead of 'was'! In other words, I too have difficulty in accepting something like that. And I'm not alone. About Kennedy, most people have their own theory.

In circumstances as unfathomable as the JFK assault, our mind just keeps pushing and pushing towards those theories, regardless if they are true or not. The alternative - accepting that life can be chaotic, and that one man really can have so much influence - is very, very hard. For many, it is impossible.

Just think of this: the lone gunman that tried to kill Ronald Reagan is basically forgotten. In fact, that whole incident is almost gone from our collective memory. Why? It's because Reagan survived. The impact was not so big. So, there are hardly any conspiracies that formed around that moment. We accept that it happened exactly the way it did.

We can all become bullies

In other words: if the circumstances are strong enough, there is a bully, a conspiracy theorist and a denier in all of us. As we've already concluded in the article This Pandemic is Not About Us, even those in the fluffiest corners of our cultural world, full of hugs, love, yoga, hugs, quinoa and avocado (did I mention hugs?), can go overboard and embrace conspiracy theories like 5G. And yes, can become bullies.

The big insight here is that these people are like you and me. In fact, they are you and me. With the exception of bullies that really do have some trauma to work through, many 'normal' people have gone bananas to some degree in these past lock down months. It's only natural, since the stress was big and the threat real. The circumstances were strong enough for our unconscious mind to seek patterns, even if they didn't exist. It's our great fantasy working against us.

Just look at me, a university graduate in communication science and propaganda, who has studied these subjects for about two decades now. You'd think I would at least be better at it than most people. Yet, I too was tricked by my own mind into believing things that turned out not be true (to guess which ones, read this comical blog). In survival mode, my mind started looking for control as well.

The need for control

And so it works with all of these big subjects. Take the recent prostests for instance. Why would people criticize an inherently good thing like #Blacklivesmatter? It's because protests look scary. They seek control. Why would anyone spread conspiracy theories about the very real danger of a virus? Because a virus is something you can't see, can't fight. It's out of your control, so you look for someone or something to blame. And why are there so many conspiracy theories about 'The Deep State' in the United States? The same reason: fear. In this case of some left-wing conspiracy.

And none of it is true. Yet, people still believe. This isn't helped by the fact that sometimes conspiracies do really exist! The lie about Weapons of Mass Destruction to the United Nations by the Bush Administration, is a prime example. And that one came out. The equation is simple: the bigger the impact of a conspiracy, the less people you need to reveal it. A real conspiracy just cannot be stopped. It has to come to the surface. Science tells us that the more people are involved, the less likely a conspiracy will remain hidden. Common sense tells us that too. Just as it is human nature to see patterns that aren't there, so is spilling the beans.

But so many people still believe in the false theories. And spread them on social media. Only when they end up in the hospital with Covid19, or suffer a real consequence in the real world, they change their opinion. And you know what, I get it. After all these years it is still very, very hard for me to admit that the Bush family was not behind 9/11. And for crying out loud I freakin' graduated on the War on Terror. Even against all logic, I'm still seeing sheep in the clouds.

The big question is of course whether or not I act upon it. That's the key. My actions are what make my behavior good or bad. Like spreading it on social media. Or even start bullying those who don't believe me. That's the difference with the real world.

A common sense approach

In the online world, there are no direct, linear consequences to bullying, making racist remarks, spreading conspiracies and fake news or otherwise negative, insulting and toxic behavior. There is no one staring you in the eyes when you do it. Yet, the people that fall victim to it, do feel that direct, linear consequence when they are discriminated against, have their privacy invaded, or see their whole Facebook page explode with aggressive responses, after they protest for racial inequality (yes, this happened to me...).

In other words, and often without any warning or possibility to do something back, online toxic behavior is eating away at the freedoms of those who do behave in a normal manner on our interwebs. And right now, the only ones in a position to combat this directly, are the social media companies, and those that advertise on them. So, we are back at our million dollar question: should they step in?

Checking content is no longer a choice

Should social media companies start editing content and policing for hateful and/or untruthful behavior? The answer is not yes, nor is it no. The answer is: we probably have no other choice anymore. Even if you don't like the idea of Zuckerberg telling us what we can or can't say online (which I certainly don't!), I'm arguing that the reality of the situation is that we can no longer avoid such a scenario.

This is because social media have become the equivalent of a public space, but then online.

While most apps are best described as virtual 'buildings', which are closed off to the general public, social media apps are our 'streets', where everyone is on and we all meet digitally. And right now, on these digital streets, that online public space called social media, many people are being discriminated against, and bullied, and lied to. In fact, most people are. Almost everyone has become victim to some degree of bad behavior online by a vocal minority venting fear.

In the real world of public places, we would solve this bullying problem directly. We'd turn away, stop and/or punish the bully. Throw him (or her) out of the bar, give them detention at school, take away their library card. Or even write them a ticket. But in the online world we don't have such a direct response. We cannot confront the bully. The only ones who have any power to act are the social media companies. Even advertisers can't do anything directly, just stop advertising to give a signal.

So, if we don't want the entire social media space to turn sour on us, we now have no other choice than to have social media companies do some sort of checking. We are in their hands. I'm not sure I like it. And you probably don't either. But logic dictates there is - at this moment in time - no way back.

Just like with privacy benefiting from enforcing and copying existing copyright laws from the real world to the virtual, we are - like it or not - on a path to do the same with new online laws and codes of conduct that resemble those in the real world. And just like library workers, teachers, cops and bar owners do in the real world, these social media companies will need to teach people how to behave in the virtual public space. Or suffer the consequences.

Freedom of speech was never in danger

Where this will lead is still unknown. To many of us, it feels very uncomfortable to leave the 'lawmaking;' and 'policing' to Silicon Valley. I get that. In time, we might want to create independent bodies for this, that can guarantee some degree of fairness. Plus, California's tech moguls have arguably not been the most moral of people. It is hard to trust them with such a huge responsibility.

But are they stifling freedom of speech? The answer is a resounding and emphatic no. First off, it always seems to be the one pushing the conspiracy, making the racist remark, or doing the insult that cites the free speech argument. So, as arguments go, it's the weakest one, since it's coming from the aggressor, who actually exercised their free speech in the first place. If not, we wouldn't be talking about it.

That other argument - that an editorial role will stifle free speech - is also not valid. Yes, social media companies now editing and policing will have an affect on what you can or cannot say in the online public space of social media. But if you don't like that, there are still thousands upon thousands of ways you can exercise your free speech online. The fact that I'm writing this blog, and you are reading it, proves that. You could do it too. No one is stopping you.

In other words, despite your mind seeing all kinds of patterns, your freedom of speech was - just like mine - never in any danger at all. And the real kicker? You can still exercise your freedom of speech to bully people on social media and spread fake news and conspiracies. Just like before. With one notable difference: now, with them editing, there will be consequences.

Just like in the real world.

Rogier van Kralingen


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