Social Media and the Human Right to Freedom of Expression

social media

In some respects, social media is seen as a key platform for freedom of expression: anyone with access to the internet can create an account, which allows them to express their own opinions on a daily basis, through tweets, status updates, and photographs. However, do we really have as much freedom online as we are inclined to believe?

Freedom of expression is considered to be a basic human right, so in this respect we can praise social media for furthering the fulfilment of this human right, through its accessibility.

However, to address the real impact of social media on freedom of expression, the meaning of ‘freedom of expression’ must be defined. The basic understanding of freedom of expression is the ability to express oneself without government, or legal, intervention. The exceptions to this rule are when an ‘expression’ directly, and violently, threatens another person or group.

The relationship between social media and this definition of freedom of expression, exhibits itself further when looking at some countries that actually ban social media, or significantly limit its use; for example, Iran, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Turkey and North Korea.

North Korea is the only country from this list that is completely cut off from social media and the World Wide Web, with its own internal internet. Limiting social media in this way is an attack on the basic right to freedom of expression, particularly in this digital world, where communication with the public via social media is, to some, on the same level of importance as public interaction.

Freedom of information is considered by many, an integral aspect of freedom of expression. Freedom of information gives the public a right of access to information held by public authorities, which can also apply to social media.

An interesting example of the role of social media in freedom of information, was Twitter’s decision to revoke the use of an account called ‘Politwoops’, which let the public see tweets politicians had deleted. Last summer the account was shut down as Twitter suggested its use violated the politicians’ privacy settings. However, it has now been reinstated to allow public transparency and freedom of information.

The definition of freedom of expression can be expanded to include the right to express opinions without serious backlash. This is where social media seems to drastically constrain people’s freedom of expression.

Expressing yourself on social media platforms doesn’t allow for facial expressions and gestures – an integral tool when explaining yourself and ensuring your emotional intentions compliment your arguments.

We’ve all sent or received a text message, which was intended sarcastically, but interpreted seriously. When words are just laid out in text they can be completely misinterpreted, due to their lack of emotion and gesture. Visual forms of expression are essential when talking about a sensitive subject, which stirs passion, without them your words can become very skewed by other people’s perceptions.

I would argue that this limitation of social media doesn’t aid freedom of expression. Although it doesn’t prevent people from freely speaking their mind, it causes unnecessary confusion and skewed interpretation.

The host of perceptions created by a line of words, with no visual context, can lead to significant backlash from other people that may have misunderstood your approach to a topic. For instance, when one attempts to approach a sensitive subject with empathy online, without a solemn facial expression or a soft, their comment can be received in different ways. This very often leads to ‘keyboard warrior’ responses and significant backlash for a misinterpreted statement.

But then again, in using the platform of social media to voice controversial topics, you can only expect to find people that will disagree with you, just as you would anywhere else.

The most troubling element of the relationship between social media, and freedom of expression, is the possibility monitoring and intrusive surveillance.

In an ideal world we would like to assume that our social media pages are a safe place for us to express ourselves. However, I can’t help but think back to all those lessons and posters, from secondary school, warning us about how we present ourselves on these pages.

In theory we have the freedom to use social media as our platform for whatever we wish, but do we really? What if some of our more controversial statements and photos are found by possible employers?

A fear of surveillance can also limit our freedom to express ourselves on social media platforms, and lead companies and individuals to self-censor their statements.

Although issues of monitoring and cruel backlash do pose threats to our freedom of expression within social media, in the UK, we are currently still able to freely cultivate our online presence without government shutdown. However, new anti-terror legislation threatens to increase state intervention in social media, and thereby further limit freedom of expression on the internet.

On the one hand, therefore, social media is an excellent resource for enabling the human right of freedom of expression, but on the other hand, it does pose deeply problematic questions regarding self-censorship and surveillance.

In our present environment, which views social media as a primary tool for terrorism, we ought to be vigilant about protecting our freedom of expression online.

Amy Stewart


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