The term social media can bring a myriad of feelings to the user: frustration, joy, concern and fear. When Myspace debuted in 2003, it opened doors for people of all walks of life to find a little corner of the internet for themselves that could be uniquely customized and offer a way to connect to other like-minded individuals world-wide. Once Facebook took over in 2008, what once belonged to the college crowd quickly erupted among all age groups (or at least those inclined to technology), and the idea of a public platform that could share personal profiles became the cornerstone of communication and business marketing.
During that time, no one could ever have imagined it would become what we know it as today: a divisive and controversial platform that ended up playing a titular role in a political agenda used by private citizens and politicians alike.
With everything that has happened in the first month of 2021, we wanted to bring this topic to the table and discuss not the politics, but the fundamentals and policies of social media at large, and how we got to where we are. We’ll begin with the basic principles of public versus private, then delve into the policy specifics, and finish up with the public’s expectations, what options exist, and how it shaped the future political landscape.
Public vs. Private: Specifically, Social Media Platforms and 1st Amendment Rights
The first clarification to be made is about public and private companies and how the confusion around “publicly traded” has caused quite the stir. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… these are currently the most popular social media platforms whose stocks are publicly traded. However, publicly traded does not mean they are public companies, and in these particular cases, they are private companies whose stocks happen to be publicly traded.
Next, we often hear that censorship on public platforms infringe on our 1st Amendment rights. But when it comes to 1st Amendment rights and these particular platforms, there is nothing to be applied. The 1st Amendment is a protection against the government censoring speech, not a private company.
Now that we have made these two important clarifications, it should be clear that private companies, who are not the government, can apply any rules they want to their public platforms without any concern of upending an individual’s rights. Whether or not one may agree with this statement, it’s the current bottom line and law of the land.
The Fine Print and Why it Matters
Any time an individual signs up for a social media account, purchases a car, or applies for a new credit card, there are paragraphs of “fine print” that are rarely, if ever, read. Much of the fine print includes legalese that is par for the course, but in most every case will encompass important details that are imperative to the functionality of the business entity.
When it comes to Facebook and other social media platforms, the terms of service and privacy policies that we all agree to cover who actually owns the posted content, who can use the posted content, and in what ways the collection of user metadata and information is used. What it also includes is monitoring the content to ensure users are not violating hate speech rules or inciting violence.
While these policies are written in broad strokes and not always enforced as regularly as they should, it does matter that they exist at all. As we have just witnessed, there are consequences when a user doesn’t comply with the signed agreement, and the private company can enforce as they deem necessary. Again, this point may not be agreeable to all, but it is what we agreed to when signing up for an account.
Expectations and Options
Many users expect that whatever they post belongs to them and that anything they say is protected by freedom of speech. As we’ve just covered, it’s not as cut and dry as that. While the content does belong to the user, the platform reserves the right to use any posted content in any way they choose, and since the platform is a private company, they are not beholden to the 1st Amendment the way the government is. So what are the options?
Certainly, anyone can choose to not engage in social media and can even delete their accounts. However, this comes with caveats. First of all, some platforms only offer the option of “deactivating” accounts, meaning they will never officially be deleted. Other platforms hold deleted accounts in a temporary status, meaning that while the account is deleted from the public eye, the data still lives in the archives and can be accessed by the platform or the original user if ever needed. Some have a time frame associated with this, where once a certain number of days have passed, it will officially be deleted.
Another option is to only engage with “private” social media such as Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Instagram’s Stories and Direct Messages. Facebook Messenger doesn’t even require a Facebook account in order to use it, but most don’t know what the differences are. In public social media, posts are visible for all to see unless custom viewing settings are in place. In private social media, only those engaged with will see what is posted directly to them. In eastern countries, private social media has taken off, and now includes functionality beyond just messaging: from appointment setting, rideshare ordering and more, the hope is that the western countries will soon join this movement and bring private social media into the forefront of daily use.
How Did Social Media Shape Our Political Landscape?
Prior to the 2016 election, social media was soaring with millions of users viewing the platforms daily. While the previous administration used social media, they still used traditional channels for official proclamations and announcements. However, once the new administration took office in 2017, social media seemed to become the most often used channel for disseminating information and news, and even the whims of commentary not usually seen in politics.
Of course, mixing social media and politics is not new, but it seemed to take on a life of its own in the last four years, both helping and hindering our national dialogue. On one hand, we had a front-row seat to watch as things happened in real time, but on the other hand, it served as an echo chamber for those feeling disenfranchised or scared. With so much misinformation being spread online, they became easy targets for radical leanings, especially when being encouraged by those in power. After the 2020 election was completed, social media was basically weaponized by those not in agreement with the outcome, and it culminated with the actions in our Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Social media platforms did not cause this event to occur, but it was a handy and powerful weapon for those responsible. Of course, many of these platforms are now trying to find ways to both cover their backsides and find new paths forward to ensure it doesn’t happen again, but they risk the business model that had become so successful. Change is inevitable, and more than likely, we will see a rise in private social media opportunities. It will still be up to the individual user to sort fact from fiction, and that front-row seat may be obscured, however, social media is here to stay and it will continue to affect our political landscape.
After a difficult and frustrating 2020, we all looked forward to 2021 bringing about some sense of normalcy, and many could see the light at the end of the tunnel as it drew near. In the midst of a pandemic, we used (and still use) social media as a way to connect while maintaining physical distance, and most of us never really considered it much more than a public forum to share what was foremost on our minds. Unfortunately, this new year began with a horrific turn of events, and while it was illuminating in many ways, both good and bad, what happens next will be even more enlightening.
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