Friday, September 21, 2012

Free Speech vs. Inflammatory Content

                As the world watches the violence and anti-American protests in many Arab Spring countries, it is hard not to wonder if this could have been avoided simply by YouTube invoking prior restraint on the anti-Muslim video created by a mysterious American. Since the development of the mass media, people have debated the question of the media's ability to truly elicit actions.  Who can be held responsible for the negative outcome of a message disseminated through the mass (or in recent cases, social) media?  I believe this question has two components; first, the legal question (can a medium be held legally accountable?) and second, the ethics question (does a medium have an ethical duty to act  in these cases?). 

The Legal Question
                In terms of the legal liability of media for the content they produce or disseminate, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled consistently that unless specific instructions for violence were in the messaging, it is not the media outlet's fault if violence ensues.  (See Brown v.EMA).  In the United States, the First Amendment protects even offensive speech, and even protects the medium through which such messages are communicated. However, it must be noted that with the rise of social media, a nearly-international medium, the legal  factor is thrown by the wayside as different governments have different views of and implications for free speech.  

The Ethical Question
                In most cases, although legal action may be pursued by a government trying to restrict speech or attain information, the question of dissemination of potentially inflammatory speech often boils down to a question of organizational ethics.  This is not as simple as the difference between 'right' and 'wrong', however.  For example, YouTube willingly removed the anti-Muslim video from being accessed in certain countries, where it was most likely to elicit violence.  YouTube/Google believed that their ethical obligation was to try to curb violence in an already-inflamed situation.  However, Twitter is well-known for its firm stance against infringements of speech.  Earlier this year, the Pakistani government blocked Twitter after the company refused to remove certain content that had been disseminated through its channels.  Although its reaction was the opposite of Google's, it believed it was acting ethically by standing for free speech.  YouTube takes the more utilitarian view of free speech ethics, acting in the best interest of the greatest number of people (by attempting to stop violence), whereas Twitter acts in the deontological view of free speech ethics, seeing a moral duty to uphold the principles of free speech.

                In my opinion, although I am a supporter of free speech, I believe that social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have an ethical obligation to curb the dissemination of inflammatory material.  However, this is a difficult call to make for these organizations.  In the United States, groups regularly poke fun at religious symbols and other 'sacred' images or figures.   We would probably not think much of a video poking fun of a prophet, certainly not enough to begin massacring people and destroying things.  However, in other countries, where there is not an everyday reality of free (and offensive) speech, this video elicited an unprecedented reaction of violence and hate.  Social media outlets, being international entities, must tread carefully when balancing the social and political value of free speech with the equally-important value of peace and stability.  

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