Many have speculated — and I am one of them — that the problem with social media, and online communications in general, is that it removes a degree of accountability from those who wish to convey hateful or confrontational messages. It’s easier to call someone a bad name if they aren’t standing in front of you.
Since about 2008, I have seen the rise of hate speech online and a palpable vitriol in political discussions. Conversations about which political candidate is good or bad have been going on for centuries, but it seems that the level of animosity and outright hatred rose dramatically about the time a black man ran for President of the United States.
Was that latent white supremacy rearing its ugly head because it had a prominent target? Or was the hatred always there, waiting for an easy way to be unleashed and shared?
I think it was the latter. It’s a lot easier for someone to reveal their true racist colors and scream it at the world when there is no risk of consequence. If someone stands on the street corner and shouts, “I will -never- vote for a black man for President!” they are likely to be confronted, shouted down, maybe even physically accosted in some places. On social media, they can do so with near impunity, and have a much larger audience hear or see their message.
Social media, and the internet in general, makes it very easy to spread hate.
Legality of Free Speech
In the United States, we have an amendment to our Constitution that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
What many people confuse about our First Amendment right to free speech is that it doesn’t absolve a person for the consequences of what they say. For example, you can’t walk into a crowded movie theater and shout, “FIRE!” without getting into a lot of trouble — and putting many people’s lives at risk. You also can’t stand up in front of a large crowd and call for them to storm the capitol building, inciting a riot or insurrection. That’s illegal.
My primary point, however, is the double-edge to the sword of social media. We have the right to free thought and expression (within certain legal limits, of course) but with that freedom we also have the moral and ethical responsibility to be kind, truthful, and respectful. Just because you can say something negative about someone without consequence doesn’t mean you should.