Are prompt reactions by social media users snowballing free speech crisis?

The emergence of social media has, no doubt, given a common man a sense of power which he used to lack before, for it has provided him with the platform to freely express himself before almost anyone as the entry into traditional media is restricted. It has become a source of making people well aware of facts and figures which makes them capable of making more informed decisions. Secondly, when democracies are functioning somewhat properly, people’s sufferings and challenges are not entirely private matters and social media platforms help us alert one another to a million and one different problems.#MeToo movement is clearly the consequence of such arrangement.

However, the social media – Facebook and Twitter in particular – has rightly been associated with spreading fake news, aggravating extremism, meddling in elections and manipulating peoples’ mindsto achieve desired outcomes lately. We have seen, those with specific interests – including political parties and nations seeking to disrupt democratic processes – can use social media to promote those interests. This problem is linked to the phenomenon of group polarization and it raises a series of serious questions as in what is group polarization; how it is being done on social media and how peoples’ prompt reaction to social media posts are linked with a snowballing threat to fundamental freedoms?

Group polarization takes hold when like-minded people talk to one another and end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. To explore the issue of polarization, bear with me for a moment and consider a small experiment in democracy that Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, conducted with some colleagues over a decade ago. They brought about sixty American citizens together and assembled them into groups, generally consisting of six people. They were asked some questions.

The results were simple and disturbing. In almost every group, members ended up with more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. That’s group polarization in action.

Your Facebook friends may be a lot like one of the Colorado groups (only a lot bigger). On your Twitter feed, you might follow people who think like you do. As you read what they have to say, you’ll end up more entrenched in your position. For many users, social media platforms are creating the equivalent of the Colorado experiment.

It doesn’t end here; what makes social media worse with respect to group polarization is the existence of instant reactions on Facebook and Twitter users give. This factor does not seem to happen in the case of traditional media the way it has been observed in the case of social media, for instance, fake news are not a new phenomenon; they are age-old issues, in fact, however, proliferation of fake news has taken a new level since when the use of social media has become more pervasive in our lives. Why? While reading a book, a paper or watching some TV program, you generally take a pause when something written on it or being depicted thereon strikes your mind and you take time to think it through in order to develop your perspective clearly which is usually a mild one leaving room for further discussion. On the other hand, when people view written posts or photos with fiery captions on Facebook or Twitter majority doesn’t take a while to react to them, for they are desperate to scroll down the newsfeed. And once they have shared their take, it becomes almost impossible for them to review their thought, therefore, they stick to their irrational opinions formed in an ultimate rush which are further backed up by the presence of likeminded people reacting in a similar manner. However, pathologies such as fake news, false propaganda and hate speech can probably be abated if people stop reacting to social media posts in a hasty fashion, for these are the instant reactions which make something more viral in the first place and encourage the governments to consider the idea of regulating the whole social media altogether.

We saw how an idiotic fruit boycott campaign on social media ended up as a complete failure in reality as it was based on instant reactions and without looking into the details that how fruit market works, therefore, it could not endure beneficial results. Similarly, there is a line of different campaigns – against Islam, all kinds of minorities, national interest, and so forth –running on social media which is widening the division and people who initially have mild thought about such stories take hard stance – whatever it is – by way of reacting instantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Moreover, instant reaction is the reason which makes rumours and fake news more pervasive on social media and it is behind spreading hate speech either as Khadim Rizvi’s recent tweets– full of hatred – got viral through retweets that very moment.

Unfortunately, companies are not doing enough to resolve these issues. The irony is that Facebook is even adding to them, for instance, Facebook has provided developing countries – including Pakistan – with free basics which is a Facebook-developed mobile app that gives users access to a small selection of data-light websites and services. On Facebook, this means people can see links to news and blog posts but can’t read them without buying data. This refers to the fact that a large number of people who are already not habitual of extensive reading react instantly to articles through clickbait headlines only and not by reading the whole piece. It makes fake news more difficult to detect and thus more persistent.

However, all this while, we should not forget how instantaneousness of reactions is aggravating extremism which is leading us toward worst kind of censorship according to a recent report released by Facebook, Pakistan made 2,203 requests to Facebook for content restriction, the highest in the world, during the first six months of 2018. This signals the presence of dire need for all stakeholders – including social media companies, users and government – to join hands to reach toward standards that could work for everyone.

The author is a corporate lawyer based in Lahore.


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