Social Media and Free Speech

A few months ago I wrote an article, posted it on Facebook and opted to “boost” it. For those unfamiliar this is the feature that let’s me, or anyone else looking to broaden their audience, target a specific set of people that may be interested in their material. Each boost has to be approved by Facebook to make sure it matches their policies on profanity, defamation etc. Much to my dismay, this particular boost was not approved. The reason? It contained political content and I was not authorized to promote it.

Fortunately, getting authorized isn’t difficult; just time consuming and intrusive. I had to go through two-factor authentication - snap a picture of, and upload, my driver’s license and then wait for a letter in the mail. A few weeks later, the letter came to my address with a pin code. It instructed me to enter in on my master Facebook account. This verified that I am who I am; and that I’m not who I’m not. It didn’t end there.

I then had to submit a disclaimer to be approved by Facebook; likely a bot (program that automatically scans words). From what I gathered, the “correct” disclaimer had to make it clear who, exactly, was sponsoring the ad. It had to be legitimate, such as a real organization, the page name or my name. Anything else would be rejected. Several of mine were rejected a few times before I wisened up and read the fine print; I’m still not sure I understand the entire policy. But I understand the need for something like it.

It wasn’t too long ago that Facebook informed me that someone attempted to log into my account from somewhere in Siberia. This made me glad they keep track of such things; I simply selected the option that said “it wasn’t me” and was guided by Facebook to reset my password. Afterwards, I thought about just how crazy all of this is, was, and likely will be in the future; Russian hackers trolling the most powerful nation on earth; and it isn't just Facebook

Companies are catching a lot of flack for “letting this happen”. They’re tightening their tolerance for free speech, in order to serve “the greater good”. Because that’s always ended well in history (picture my eyes rolling). But in all seriousness, it begs the question – are businesses, whether public or private, obligated to preserve free speech?

No. Pure and simple.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer. If I was, I’m sure I could spout statutes, and precedents for either side. Instead, I’m giving perspective based on my own experience. Hear me out:

First of all, the government is accountable to its citizens. It’s function is dictated by the constitution, and laws passed by elected officials. Laws are, in turn, interpreted by the courts, whenever they are challenged. This is somewhat an oversimplification, but it gets the point across, I think; the system is meant to hold our government accountable (at least for those who can afford a lawyer).

A company, on the other hand, is accountable to its shareholders; whether public or private. The job of a company’s managers is to increase shareholder value; within the limits of the law. In order to do this, companies have to, by their very nature, limit employee’s self-expression. For instance, if employee conversation becomes a distraction and takes away from productivity, then the employer has a right to correct the employee, even fire them. An even better example is the entire publishing industry. Writers, unless independent (like me) can’t just write whatever they want. They are subject to correction, disapproval and even firing if what they right doesn’t please the powers that be. It simply isn’t possible to guarantee everyone free speech all the time, while on employer’s time.

Enter social media. The greatest employer of people who want to waste their time.

Why employer? Because you’re the product, and your services are being sold. Whenever you “like” a post, or post something you like, you’re providing a service to a company who stands to profit from it. You and all of your information is being sold to the highest bidder, literally. As such he and his board of directors get to make the rules, and decide when it’s time to enforce them. When they feel that you’re speech is disruptive to the overall work environment, they get to curtail it. When you want to buy benefits, such as advertising, they get to ask you for documentation, forms and anything else necessary for the administration of that benefit. If you want to use the company to keep in touch with friends, you have to provide required information about yourself. As long as the company can prove that their policies are consistent across all employees, and within the confines of labor laws, its risk is minimal.

In other words, you can stand on the sidewalk and loudly profess your love for Gay Jesus without being afraid of the government trying to stop you. But do it in a colleague’s cubicle, and you can get fired.