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Want to know what is on our minds? Find blog posts written here, by the City Club staff, members, and partners. Every week you can find a new edition of #FreeSpeech in the News — a collection of related stories, commentary, and opinions on free speech in the 21st century that’s making the news. You’ll also find takes on current events, past forums, and issues surrounding Northeast Ohio. Read on for all things City Club.

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Friday, May 08, 2020

Using Online Technology Comes at a Cost

Guest Author

by Lauren Reding, 10th grader at Cuyahoga Christian Academy, and the 9/10th grade winner of the 2020 Free Speech Essay Contest. For more on this year's contest, click here.

Using Online Technology Comes at a Cost

Before online communication, people often exercised their right to free speech by writing a newspaper opinion article or by giving a speech in the public square. This certainly has changed! In a 2017 ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that the internet has now become the modern “public square” (Daseler 43). People share ideas and exercise the right to free speech through social media, but free speech on the internet comes at a cost. The information and ideas people exchange online are not private. Personal information and online behavior is stored and used by social media companies to make large profits (Fowler). Additionally, what may appear to be a person exercising their right to free speech online may not be a human being at all, but a robot programmed to manipulate national opinion (Daseler 45).

Many people do not know that online behavior and personal information entered through sites like Facebook are sold to marketers and political organizations who use it for their own gain (Fowler). According to the article “Privacy and User Awareness on Facebook,” people who share personal data generally do not understand the risks involved (Nyoni and Velempini 27). Most people assume that Facebook is a trusted computing platform, but many third party applications access Facebook profiles to violate user privacy (Nyoni and Velempini 27). According to the New York Times article, “What We’ve Learned From Our Privacy Project (So Far),” examples of online privacy invasion include the Department of Homeland Security accessing social media history to make immigration decisions and schools deploying intrusive monitoring of students’ online activity (Fowler). Users may not be aware that big data analytics can be used against them by marketers (Nyoni and Velempini 28). According to Susan Fowler at the New York Times, “Facebook and Google have made a killing monetizing the personal data of their users.” Google keeps a record of nearly everything users buy online, but it’s not clear where most personal data goes and what companies do with it (Fowler). This means that while people may innocently enjoy using social media, the platforms are, simultaneously, mining the information people are sharing so that companies, organizations, or governments can manipulate users into buying their products, supporting their causes, or swaying their opinions.

Beyond this kind of data mining, most users are unknowingly giving up privacy by exposing their location, families, experiences, and beliefs to a global audience. Facebook has 1.28 billion users, which means that messages users post for a small, known group of followers, are in reality, exposed to 1.28 million people. An attacker may target and attack users based on the information shared (Nyoni and Velempini 27). This is very frightening!

Also worrisome, opinions shared on social media may or may not be the opinions of individuals, but may be the opinions of governments, advertisers, or organizations with destructive intent (Daseler 43). According to Graham Daseler’s article, “Web of Lies,” many pioneers of social media like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube built their sites on the premise of free speech and the open exchange of ideas, but then the unexpected happened—hacking entered the picture (Daseler 43).

Hackers use sophisticated algorithms to sway public opinion (Daseler 45). According to author Graham Daseler, in August of 2017, a woman named Angee Dixson joined Twitter. A supporter of Donald Trump, she passionately promoted him by posting positive messages about him up to 90 times a day. Ultimately however, Angee Dixson proved to be not a person. Dixson was a software robot programmed by Russian programmers to interfere with the United States elections. The posts intended to sway Twitter users to support Trump. Not an isolated incident, 15% of Twitter’s user base may be fake (Daseler 45). This frightening reality presents a great risk to individuals and to America’s democracy. Programmed robots like Angee Dixson distort free speech by fraudulently putting opinions in the public square that are not opinions at all, but ideas designed to undermine the truth.

Social media sites have responded to the rise of damaging activity by taking monitoring precautions (Daseler 43). Their efforts, however, have fallen short of stopping the extensive abuse of privacy invasion and propaganda in the name of free speech. Graham Daseler explains in “Web of Lies” that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube employ thousands of moderators around the world to censor content posted on their sites (Daseler 45). Many of those assigned to the job, he explains, have just seconds to monitor posts in languages in which they are not fluent (Daseler 45). Daseler also points out that the people assigned to monitor allowable posts have their own biases that influence the information sites disseminate (Daseler 43-44).

Beyond hackers, criminals stalk social media sites with the intent to do physical harm. Lorelei Laird wrote in her article titled, “When is Posting on Social Media a Crime? Panel Debates the Issue,” that a man named Anthony Elonis threatened to kill his wife and to “shoot up” a kindergarten class in a Facebook post. Elonis claimed protection under his right of free speech. The courts felt otherwise, distinguishing between the right to free speech and a dangerous threat. The jury found Elonis guilty and sent him to prison (Laird).

Social media gives people the opportunity to talk, exchange thoughts, and share photos. However, this comes at a cost. The question is—is it worth it? That is a question for each individual person to answer for themselves. However, on a national level, use of social media to sway the opinions of voters so that the outcome of U.S. elections are altered by foreign governments must stop. The American democracy is at stake! Is there a solution? There must be! Social media companies must be held accountable. If the Russians can use robots to do damage on Facebook, then Facebook must develop technology to stop the robots.

Facebook and Twitter must develop technology to more effectively monitor hackers and block subversive behavior.

Works Cited

DASELER, GRAHAM. “Web of Lies: The Challenges of Free Speech in the Age of
Social Media.” American Conservative, vol. 18, no. 4, July 2019, pp. 43–48.

EBSCOhost.

Fowler, Susan. “What We've Learned From Our Privacy Project (So Far).” The New York

Times, The New York Times, 16 July 2019.

Laird, Lorelei. “When Is Posting on Social Media a Crime? Panel Debates the Issue.” ABA

Journal, Apr. 2015, p. 1. EBSCOhost.

Nyoni, Phillip, and Velempini, Mthulisi . “Privacy and User Awareness on Facebook.”

South African Journal of Science, vol. 114, no. 5/6, May 2018, pp. 27–31.

EBSCOhost.

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