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How far should free speech go across social media platforms?

Drawing the line for digital free speech
Posted at 4:30 AM, Jul 30, 2019

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DENVER -- There was once a time when neighbors met one another by ringing each other’s doorbells and meeting in person. These days, though, more people are turning to social media for a sense of community through Facebook, Instagram, Nextdoor and more.

But sometimes those social media actions can turn negative or even downright nasty, bringing up questions of where to draw the line when it comes to free speech in the digital age.

Some believe people should be able to say whatever they want online to whoever they want. Others believe there should be boundaries for what is and is not allowed on the internet.

Social media’s stance

Some social media sites are already starting to take a stand. In May, Facebook announced an update to how it will enforce its community standards.

During a press call, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company is making progress on catching more of the posts that violate its policies, but admitted that there is more work to be dome.

“In this cycle, we proactively found less bullying and harassing content, down from 21% last quarter to 14 % in the first quarter of this year,” Zuckerberg said.

Meanwhile, Instagram is also working on giving its users more rights to restrict comments that could be perceived as bullying. In July, the company announced a feature that will allow users to restrict a follower’s comments so that only the two of them can see it.

It also prevents the follower from knowing the user who restricted them is using Instagram or reading their message. Instagram has also taken several other steps to prevent harassment, like an offensive comment filter to try to prevent bullying.

The neighborhood networking website Nextdoor is also getting involved. Part of the way the site is trying to bring accountability to comments is to take away their anonymity.

“By requiring members to use their real name and verified address, Nextdoor encourages neighbors to be their better selves online, leading to healthier and more productive dialogue and inspiring neighbors to lend a helping hand,” a statement to Denver7 read.

The site has a number of community guidelines to try to shape the dialogue and keep it positive, but tries to allow the users to help determine what is appropriate and inappropriate.

“Nextdoor believes that healthy debate leads to stronger communities and a more informed society -- and we want to foster productive dialogue between neighbors around issues that matter most to their neighborhood and local community,” the statement says.

Members can report content they believe violates those guidelines and then volunteers with the site can review and vote to remove the content. They can also close neighborhood discussions if things get out of hand. However, the volunteers do not have the ability to limit a member’s ability to post content or restrict the member’s access to the site; only the company can do that.

It is also in the process of testing new tools to try to encourage conversations to stay positive.

“We are currently testing a “kindness reminder” module within the product that encourages members to slow down, think before posting and, ultimately, be neighborly,” the statement read.

To block or not to block

For Marie Nelson, digital decency comes down to the click of a button. Nelson is the administrator of Word of Mouth Littleton, a Facebook group meant to connect people in the area to one another for recommendations, help, requests and more.

“It is a great community group and that’s the main reason I created it. I wanted somebody to be able to have a safe place to go and share their stories as well as search for a contractor that has maybe been in the area that someone has used,” Nelson said.

It can also help raise awareness about things that are happening in the community.

The group started about three years ago and started of slowly but eventually swelled to include more than 20,000 members.

However, Nelson has come up with a few rules for the group to determine what are appropriate and inappropriate discussions. She does not allow anyone to put up posts promoting unlicensed contractors. She also doesn’t allow posts that promote multi-level marketing companies.

“I want the group to be run in a specific dynamic; I don’t want it to be spammed with all of these ads and lose the true meaning of what the group is meant for,” Nelson said.

Nelson also has strict rules against bullying on the Word of Mouth Littleton page and said she has had to delete thousands of posts for that very reason.

“If I’m asking you for a veterinarian, I shouldn’t be questioned on how I care for my dog and it shouldn’t turn that into a personal attack on the person,” Nelson said. “I want it to be a safe space. I don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t want to say something.”

Nelson has blocked nearly 1,000 people from the group who refused to keep conversations civil. She said some of them are also bots.

Nelson does try to give the members who are making these unacceptable comments a warning before removing them from the group.

“I am not trying to change who anybody is if that’s how you are in your personal life and if you make jokes like that or if you do jobs like that, that is fine, but save that for your personal page. Do not come to a community group and spread that negativity,” Nelson said.

Many of the members will also report comments to Nelson they think are inappropriate for her to review.

Nelson also has to approve each post before it is made public to the group. She says she has had a lot of members thank her for trying to keep the dialogue in the group positive.

Facebook has also begun cracking down on these types of community groups and the type of content they allow. The social media site has created a way to monitor the groups and the number of violations they allow in, such as hateful content. If a group gets too many violations, Facebook can close the group down.

Cause and effect

Lynn Schofield Clark has spent years studying the effects of social media on people and communities. Schofield Clark is a professor of media, film and journalism studies at the University of Denver.

“One of the things about social media is that it lowers people’s inhibitions so they know they can say what they want, and they don’t have to necessarily think about who is going to be receiving it,” she said.

Over the years, Schofield Clark believes things have gotten even more ugly online, including social media shaming, where people post their grievances.

“Shaming becomes a way that people respond whenever they feel wronged. They feel they need to shame somebody in order to call them out and have them publicly flog basically,” she said.

In her research, she has also noticed that people in protected classes are more likely to be harassed.

Schofield Clark blames part of the negativity on misinterpretation since it can be difficult to understand a post’s tone.

“People of all ages are more likely than ever before to misinterpret what somebody says online,” she said.

However, negative or harassing posts can have consequences. In Colorado, there is a law that makes cyber harassment a class three misdemeanor.

“People can be fined up to $750 for harassing somebody else online or get up to six months in county jail,” Schofield Clark said.

However, even if posts don’t rise to that level, Schofield Clark says there can still be long-term consequences.

“The message that we put up on social media last forever. We all have a digital trail and what that means is that somebody can find it long after we have said something and so we have to think about that,” she said.

Beyond that, she believes there can be ripple effects in families, where kids watch adults interacting negatively online and do the same things to one another.

“They are learning it from their parents. Parents are very key to this problem that we have in society with people harassing one another,” she said.

She believes people need to think a little longer before they post things online and consider the potential consequences.

The psychology of social media

Psychologist Travis Health says he has had dozens of patients come in over the past 18 months with a goal of disconnecting from social media.

“The number one reason that I have seen that causes depression and anxiety is the social comparison,” Heath said.

Heath also studies the effects of social media on people and teaches a course on addictive behaviors at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He believes people turn to social media for a sense connection.

“That seems like a basic human need, a basic human drive to feel connected to other people and to feel like we are part of a community,” he said.

Social media can also be a way for people to test out different identities that they would prefer to have or don’t feel like they can express in real life.

While there can be benefits social media, Heath says losing the face-to-face interactions can cause people to feel less empathetic toward others.

“If I just see an avatar online it’s much easier to say things maybe I otherwise wouldn’t say. I’m not going to feel as bad because I don’t see how my words affect you,” he said.

It also causes like-minded individuals to flock together to share their opinions, interacting with fewer people who think differently from them and possibly widening the divide between them.

For some, venting online can be cathartic. However, Heath believes social media can also be overwhelming since the possibilities are endless.

“I have to have an opinion and I have to have it now in real time,” he said.

He believes there is also a race to be the first to post something or to have the most likes or retweets.

Even positive posts online can have a negative effect since people are constantly comparing their lives to one another.

“Everyone is sort of portraying this perfect life, and I thought to myself, ‘Well it’s no wonder you’re feeling depressed because everyone you’re looking at, of course they don’t really have a perfect life, but it looks like they have a perfect life,’” he said.

People are also judging one another based on a simple profile rather than real interactions.

Heath doesn’t think the world will truly understand the impacts and unintended consequences of the digital age for years, if ever.

He often encourages people to take time to think about what they are posting to decide whether it’s worth it or not.

“Often times when I invite people to do that, they are like, 'I would rather not comment. It doesn’t seem that important anymore,'” he said.

When Denver7 posted about this topic online, opinions were varied. Some people said negative posts should be considered free speech and that they should be protected. Others said there need to be limits to what is posted online.