iTHINK | Has social media warped free speech?

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It is no secret that Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, has been suspended from Facebook and Instagram for at least two years, in the interest of public safety after the US Capitol riots last January 6, 2021.

This comes after Twitter had permanently banned him, preventing him from issuing statements on the platform.

While his critics say the two-year suspension isn’t harsh enough, he and his allies claim that the action is an insult to his supporters and an attack on his exercise of free speech.

As we recently celebrated the 123 years of Philippine independence, I can’t help but ponder on how different things may have been if our forebears never fought for our freedom from our colonizers.

I certainly can’t imagine that we’d be able to enjoy the same rights and freedoms we do now if they hadn’t. While all our human rights and freedoms are equally important, for me as a professional communicator, our right to free speech holds special significance.

The rise of social media has certainly democratized speech. Gone are the days when reporting, opinions, political commentaries, and product reviews were almost exclusively at the hands of media organizations, governments, and subject matter experts.

Now, everyone has essentially become a reporter. The “reports” can be anything – how they’re feeling, what they’re eating, who they’re with, what the traffic is like on their way to work, their latest acquisitions — the list goes on.

Restaurant reviews are no longer reserved for epicures with culinary backgrounds or palates developed through years of tasting the finest cuisines around the world. Now, you and your neighbor can post a review that can potentially make or break a small business’s future.

I’ve seen many instances when bank customers who, in their distress over losing their hard-earned money to fraudsters, rant on social media, accusing their bank of stealing their money or allowing the fraudulent activity to occur.

In almost all cases, investigations would reveal that the customers themselves allowed the breach to happen by providing their One-Time PINs (OTPs) or other sensitive information. This, despite repeated reminders from banks to their clients about the shared responsibility in keeping their account information secure.

Political commentary has also become a free-for-all, where the opinions of commentators with PhDs and legal degrees are treated with less appreciation than those of vloggers and celebrities who have little beyond follower size as their credentials.

Objectively, I am concerned about the quality of information and discourse that millions of Filipinos are basing their political choices on.

While imperfect, media organizations benefit from having a team of fact-checkers and editors who are duty-bound to ensure that everything they publish, post, or air is true, factually correct, and meets journalism standards of fairness and ethics.

We’re all free to say what we want, and I appreciate that social media gives us a way to broadcast it to a wider audience than our immediate circles, but we must not lose sight of the responsibilities that come with free speech.

Before we speak or post, let us take time to THINK and ask ourselves:

  1. Is it True?
  2. Is it Helpful?
  3. Is it Inspiring?
  4. Is it Necessary?
  5. Is it Kind?

In these times when things can be broadcast to the world with just a few finger taps, it becomes even more important for us to pause and take time to verify things or even to reflect on our own motivations.

Doing so can help us, even as individuals, avoid the pitfalls of being blocked from our social media platforms, being sued for cyber libel, or losing relationships over careless and hurtful words.

Most people get carried away and speak their mind or post on social media without thinking, and sometimes the sense of entitlement just gets the better of us. But for the benefit of the common good, let’s remind ourselves that freedom of speech is both a right and a responsibility. 

Let’s enjoy it responsibly and properly, while we still can.

The author is the vice president and head of corporate affairs & communications of BPI and is concurrently the executive director of BPI Foundation

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