Speech has never been free.
There’s an awful lot of hoopla right now about freedom of speech, the clampdown by social media companies on certain striations of public discourse, and the role media companies have in our seemingly fundamental right to freedom of speech.
First, let’s start with the fact that social media companies – nay, all media companies – don’t have to protect your right to say anything you want to on their platforms. This has never been the case, even if you go all the way back to the beginning of mass media.
I know, you’re trying to quote me the First Amendment right now. I will save you some time. Here it is:
“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.“
You’ll notice that it says that “Congress shall make no law.” Since its enactment, courts have largely held that it’s not only Congress, but states as well who shall not infringe on your right to speak freely.
Notice it says nothing about media, social media, corporations, organizations, schools or any other body. The government, and the government alone, cannot prohibit you from the right to freedom of speech.
Still with me?
Now let’s move on to the current hubbub about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. We’ll start with the history lesson.
If you watched Citizen Kane, then you probably know it was all about William Randolph Hearst. At the height of his power and fame, he owned 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines, along with several radio stations, movie companies, and news services. He is known for ushering in the age of sensationalized news, what is commonly known as yellow journalism. If Hearst didn’t like it, it didn’t run in his papers or on his stations. It was a benevolent dictatorship.
Fast forward to the dawn of television. As many of you old farts remember, there were only three national TV networks: CBS, NBC and ABC in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. These networks decided what went on television and what didn’t. They decided what shows you saw, what news you heard and even drove what our culture looked like through advertising. If you were really lucky, you got an independent station in your hometown and a public television station.
The point here is that the public didn’t have any say on what was shown, outside of the Nielsen Ratings. Live TV didn’t allow you to fast forward through commercials or even watch the show as a rerun, in its earliest form. Network executives dictated what the content was. Another benevolent dictatorship, controlled by three large corporations with holdings in radio, TV, publishing and music (remember the Columbia Records club?).
Then the Internet arrived. A new medium that seemed so democratic. Anyone could logon and revel in content that was of specific interest to them. Well, kind of. First, you had to login through an Internet provider who charged you for the privilege of accessing their version of the Internet. AOL and Compuserve gave you an edited version of the Internet in the early days. They dictated what you saw and how you interacted, much as the major TV networks did.
As more and more people got on the Internet, newcomers started to notice the power of the web, not as a tool for communication and an exchange of ideas, but as a data goldmine. We probably all remember MySpace, one of the pioneers of data amalgamation as a business model.
Today, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tik Tok, etc., use this same model. You get to be on their site for free because your the price you pay is the surrender of all your data to the host company. Everything you do on a social media site is logged, analyzed, synergized, and then shared with other companies who buy your data. Ever wonder how an Amazon ad shows up on Facebook for a product you just searched for on Google? It’s data shares, my friend. That’s where the money is.
If you ever read the Terms of Service on these sites, you’d quickly learn that you don’t have the right to say anything you want. To be fair, you’re given a pretty wide space to play in, but if you cross the line, you run the risk of getting a timeout. Why? Because these businesses don’t want to lose revenue. No advertiser wants to hang around an insurrection-minded mob. There’s no money in it, except to sell Trump flags and ammo. I am singling them out unfairly because being on the far, far left isn’t any better for these businesses.
This all seems so unfair, I know. But these companies don’t have to pander to your desire to post whatever you want to on their sites. They aren’t charging you to be there. You’re there on their dime and you’re paying for the experience with every poll you take, every post you like or dislike and any ad you click on because it has an amazing offer for something you were just thinking about buying.
There is a simple remedy for this. Stay off social media. There was a time not so long ago when people managed to live without Facebook posts and Tweets. There was no need to feed your ego or engage in pseudo-debates with click-baiters on the other side of an issue.
We wonder why we’re so divided? Because Facebook has convinced us that these people we Friend are actually our Friends. In most cases, they aren’t even our acquaintances and in many cases, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, there to tear you down, fuel your fears, create fear about others who aren’t exactly like you, and divide us even further.
In short, mass media has never been democratic. There is a buck to be made in any media company’s business model. It was never about creating something for the greater good. It was about making money off of you.
Somewhere north of the Emerald City, exercising my freedom of speech in my own sandbox,