Social Media, Free Speech and the Mob: input wanted

I was invited to speak at Seattle’s Social Media Club on Wed 1/22 (registration here) on the topic of Free Speech and Social Media. I’m inviting your opinions to help me sort out my own. It’s a subject Iv’e followed for a long time, but it’s complex enough I’d benefit from opening the floor here on the blog.

The initial premise of “Does social media help or hurt free speech?” is definitely a false dichotomy, but false dichotomies are useful in laying out a general landscape so I’m sticking with it for now.

Clearly there are so many facets to this wide question that both are true: social media improves people’s ability to make their speech visible, meaning the ability to publish, but it can simultaneously make the consequences of speaking up harder if more people pay attention to what you publish than you expected.  Mob justice, harassment and vigilante behavior have different dimensions online and the combination has some very destructive consequences.

Among other research I’m reading Tom Standage’s book Writing on the Wall: The first 2000 years of social media and it’s excellent so far. We have had social media for a long time and despite what the laws have said about speech, plenty of people have chosen to speak freely anyway (often at their peril). We have much to learn from look backwards.

I have 6 questions I’m exploring:

  1. How has new media changed access to expression?
  2. How has this made things better?
  3. How has this made things worse?
  4. What new challenges are we facing? (and what can we learn from how we adjusted to previous media innovations?)
  5. What implications does all this have for individuals?
  6. What implications does all this have for leaders, corporations and governments?

Here’s the list of articles and perspectives I’ve been reading recently. Suggestions welcome:

Opinions welcome. The floor is open. I’ll reference useful comments in the talk itself. Thanks.

22 Responses to “Social Media, Free Speech and the Mob: input wanted”

  1. Franklin Chen

    I just read Ryan Holiday’s book on media manipulation, and I have to confess it’s shaken me, so I’m still thinking about this topic!

    1. Scott

      Has it changed your opinion of Twitter and Facebook?

      1. Franklin Chen

        As a matter of fact, yes. As of Monday evening I “quit” Twitter and Facebook cold turkey, as an experiment that will continue for however long I feel like continuing it. Holiday says RSS is dead, but RSS is still quite alive for me and is my only window to the Web at this moment (other than links friends send me by email). I am being notified of posts such as yours through RSS.

  2. Anita Cohen-Williams

    I recommend going further back and reading about the Motrin Moms episode. It is unique not because of the response but of the way social media was used as communicating the response.

    Also, read, Shel Israel’s Twitterville: How Businesses can Survive in the New Global Neighborhoods, 2009. You should contact Shel on Twitter,, @shelisrael.

  3. Claudia Snell

    This is a great topic and needs more good discussion. For my part, I’m a lot more reluctant to participate in online conversation because of the escalation of the bad behavior you mention.

  4. Luis Villafuerte

    Hi Scott,
    I’m going to give you a more general idea, but maybe it will be useful, one never knows… The thing with all new technologies (since hundreds of years) is that it can be used to do a lot of good or to do a lot of bad. There is an interesting discussion about this in the book The Idiot by Dostoevsky, where the character Lebedev is discussing about the benefits of tech represented by the European railways network:

    “‘The world is becoming too noisy, too commercial!’ groans some solitary thinker. ‘Undoubtedly it is, but the noise of waggons bearing bread to starving humanity is of more value than tranquillity of soul,’ replies another triumphantly, and passes on with an air of pride. As for me, I don’t believe in these waggons bringing bread to humanity. For, founded on no moral principle, these may well, even in the act of carrying bread to humanity, coldly exclude a considerable portion of humanity from enjoying it; that has been seen more than once.”

    So, I agree that the key is the moral principle of how we use tech. Hope you find this useful.
    The qoute was taken from

  5. MiscMarsha

    Social media is quickly becoming a hindrance to free speech. It’s easy for people to surround themselves exclusively with echo chambers of their own beliefs on the internet and as a result aren’t exposed to opposing thoughts and are quick to the defense when they are. It’s increasingly difficult to have a peaceful conversation. I, for one, feel very restricted in the things I say on social media because it will exist permanently on the internet and it may be used against me in the future.

  6. Shantnu Tiwari

    What really gets me is all the hype. “OMG. TwitBook is changing the world.” Sometimes this hype becomes insulting, as this great Cracked article shows:

    Quote: “We were quick to label Tunisia’s recent uprising the “Twitter Revolution” and the “Wikileaks Revolution,” both of which sound asinine when you remember that Tunisia’s protests began after Mohamed Bouazizi, a disgruntled street vendor, set himself on fire. Maybe we should be giving him some credit, not ourselves. “

    1. Scott

      I like that quote. Thanks.

      We love our hype. Reporters love hype and as much as we complain about it clearly it works as we read it.

      We also have a technocentric culture, for better or worse, and that lens gets placed over everything often making it the central narrative of the story (as your example exemplifies)

      The “whole Arab spring was made possible by Facebook” idea is interesting. Tech breakthroughs rarely are key in political revolutions (most or many of them were not based on new tech developments).

  7. Joseph Bernard

    From my viewpoint as a blogger and mental health professional I observe that the access to social media and sharing ideas is having a positive and profound impact on our sense of empowerment. Our society programs us to think and feel self-doubt and often it trains us to even question our deserving. Our access to the web invites us to find our voice, to speak up, to see others voice what matters to them.

    Social media is a way for us to expand our self-expression unlike anything I can think of. What this does is cause our own questioning which is so important in a time where mass media is trying to spin a false story of what is good for the 1% is good for us all.

    Empowered people with expanding minds and open hearts can change the world now in unique ways. These are exciting times rich with opportunities for major shifts orchestrated by the people.

    1. Scott

      Thanks for the link Joe. That one seems straightforward for my purposes as no one is harassing her posting.

      The article mentions ethical questions, but that’s a misstatement. There are questions of taste and appropriateness but that’s not ethics. The philosopher/writer Montaigne wrote about bodily functions in the 16th century and offended some, but generally progressed the range of things people felt comfortable writing about. That’s not to say it’s necessarily interesting to you to read it, but the notion it’s ok for someone to write it seems a basic assumption of any notion of free speech.

      1. Joe McCarthy

        Ah, I misunderstood your intention.

        If you’re looking for examples of mob harassment, the attack on Kathy Sierra a few years ago comes foremost to mind.

        On the night of 2012 presidential election, Clay Shirky retweeted a racist tweet by @MoriahRae1 who was soon thereafter hounded off Twitter.

        I recently read another potentially relevant piece by Jill Filipovic, Let’s Be Real: Online Harassment Isn’t ‘Virtual’ For Women, which detailed her own experience and those of a few other women.

        That article also referenced another potentially relevant piece by Amanda Hess, Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, which has an even more extensive – and disturbing – compilation of online gendered harassment and its personal and professional costs.

        1. Joe McCarthy

          Oops – just noticed you already listed Amanda Hess’ article in your initial list.

  8. Elizabeth Grigg

    This is a hard topic because you’re taking something that is not cut-and-dry in the offline world and bolting it on to the online world. Reading through your questions they all make use of “this” but it’s unclear what this is referencing. Your talk may not make sense if you head this direction without defining it, but that would mean some serious manifesto-like language like “free speech is changing completely” which rings false. It’s obviously an evolving set of conditions ever since the printing press.

    If I were you I’d go a different route and use the formula of taking specific examples from the offline world, applying them to online/social media and seeing if they stick. Such as:
    . What is the Internet equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded movie theater?
    . One cannot get into a physical fight on the Internet. Does this make “fighting words,” a known exception to free speech, more permissible?
    . If someone anonymous posts lies online and nobody believes them, is it still libel?
    . I’m not a historian, but I find it interesting that the very people who established the right to free speech had to author their pamphlets under pseudonyms.
    . If a verified person posts online, is their speech more restricted than if they did the same anonymously?
    . For the most part the offline world does not have to deal with identity validation. If a guy is standing on the street corner holding a sign, we know it’s his sign. Unless he is selling mattresses. Social media is all about using your network to validate your identity and make it so your eyeballs can be sold for more. Is it possible to understand the applicability of free speech rights online without going in to the topic of identity validation?

    Just some thoughts, hope it helps!

    1. Scott

      >Just some thoughts, hope it helps!

      Sure does. I love the historical reference to Common Sense, which Paine published anonymously, at least at first. Are there others you know of?

    2. Craig Marl

      Elizabeth, I think your approach makes much sense. The online world really shouldn’t be any different from the real world in the sense of 1A jurisprudence. One nit though. There’s nothing wrong with yelling fire in a crowded movie theatre. Only *falsely* yelling fire. I think most people would also be shocked at the context of the quote, which upheld restrictions on war protests as a reasonable exception to the 1A

  9. Craig Marl

    Scott, both popehat ( and the Volokh Conspiracy( are great sources for free speech dissuasions in general.
    I think one of the issues you should address/think of is what we actually mean by free speech. Are we talking about speech in the context of the 1st Amendment, which only protects you from the Government? Or in a looser context, in terms of chilling of speech via social consequences?
    There often seems to be a sentiment (especially online) that free speech == the right to say anything without criticism.

    1. Scott

      Thanks Craig.

      I’m interested in all of these angles currently.

      1. Craig Marl

        I think angst about free speech and social media is a result of a much more closeted and coddled society, in which many people are overly sensitive about criticism, and conflate criticism of ideas with criticism of them personally. Many it seems, view free speech as a right to be able to say whatever you like without criticism or negative effects, rather than the ability to be able to say what you think and have it judged in the “marketplace of ideas”.
        I doubt the marchers in Selma were free of criticism and social consequences, but their ability to be able to voice dissent from the mainstream was pivotal in many ways. But we only view those protesters as “right” in hindsight. At the time they strayed very far from the mainstream, and that is one of my worries about how people view free speech and freedom of expression. If one views speech that is “offensive” as something to be restricted, then we as a society can miss out on incredible changes.
        I think Mill had this right when he says that the only restriction on speech should be that which prevents (physical) harm to others (i’m paraphrasing from memory, so forgive me if I get this wrong.)
        I’m pretty sure Voltaire had a thing or two to say about freedom of expression and disagreements (although Willy Wonka’s views are less clear :-))


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