What does “free speech” mean on social media these days?

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What does “free speech” mean on social media these days? – By Aprameya Radhakrishna, Co-Founder and CEO, Koo

It’s about empowering users to express themselves in a respectful way, in the language of their choice and in a safe environment.

By Aprameya Radhakrishna, Co-Founder and CEO, Koo

Does it mean freely expressing one’s thoughts and opinions in one’s native language? To share a point of view that goes against received ideas? Disagree with the opinions expressed by others? Or abuse, use profanity, share sexually explicit content, threaten to harm another individual, or spread hate and fake news?

Imagine on a hot summer day, a social media user – let’s call him B – is waiting at the bus stop. The heat and expectation take hold of him, and to vent his frustration, he turns to a micro-blogging platform. Sprinkled with swear words, he expresses his anguish in the face of the authorities. Still unhappy, he randomly posts pornographic images to get attention.

What exactly is B trying to achieve here? In an offline world, would B dare to publicly undress at the bus stop, or insult the authorities in front, without inviting condemnation? Does B’s behavior constitute “freedom of expression” on social media?

Let’s clarify this – every user has the freedom to share their thoughts and opinions, engage in dialogues or debates, share their likes and dislikes, even criticize – all while being respectful of others and responsible for what is said.

Going back to what we are often asked – Yes… we stand up for freedom of expression on social media.

Freedom of Expression for User Empowerment

We believe that “freedom of expression” begins with allowing Internet users to express themselves on a subject of their choice and, more importantly, in a language of their comfort. Having an English-first approach contradicts the fundamental philosophy of “free speech” on social media. Especially in multilingual countries like India, where English speakers constitute less than 10% of the population. Therefore, the first step towards promoting “freedom of expression” is to adopt an inclusive and multilingual approach where people are free to express themselves in the language of their choice.

Second, “free speech” is about empowering users to share their thoughts and opinions on virtually everything under the sun. Users can post, create or share anything they want. They can choose to like or criticize, agree or disagree, bring humor or sarcasm to any topic that interests them. Platforms must value every view, opinion or point of view shared by users – as long as it complies with the laws of the land. Silencing voices, suspending or banning accounts goes against the very spirit of “free speech”.

Today, multilingualism has enabled millions of users to express themselves online for the very first time. These users are new to concepts such as “micro-blogging” and curious about what and how to express. Thus, platforms have a responsibility to encourage users to create healthier and more engaging content, and to “express themselves” in a respectful way.

To promote openness on social media, we strongly believe that platforms must be non-ideologically aligned and must take a fact-based and formulaic approach to what exactly constitutes ‘freedom of expression’. Platforms should have community guidelines in place – which clearly outline what kind of content is allowed or prohibited on social media. These community guidelines should be framed according to the cultural nuances and laws of a country and be available in local languages ​​for the benefit of all users. By adopting the Guidelines, platforms can guide users to behave and interact with others more responsibly, as they would in the “real” offline world.

Freedom of expression and algorithms

Often, the free speech debate transcends the algorithms at play. Algorithms drive user relevance on social media. They work to improve and personalize the user experience, based on their behaviors and preferences. However, users may believe that certain biases impact algorithms because they don’t know why they see the type of content they see.

So we think the time is right to let users know how the algorithms work and the big variables that determine the type of content they see and consume. Social media is about people and is a public good. Users deserve to know what’s going on behind the scenes so they can trust the platform.

By opening the algorithms to the public, users are assured that the platforms are free from any kind of bias, manual interference or influence. Users learn and understand the “why” behind the type of content they receive. This builds trust on the platform, which is an integral part of the concept of “free speech”.

It is important to understand that users join social media not only to enjoy freedom of expression, but also to spend time with like-minded people in a meaningful way, in a safe and secure interconnected environment. They seek happiness and satisfaction.

Thus, the intrinsic value of “freedom of expression” can be fully exploited in a trustworthy, transparent and inclusive social media ecosystem; and where users feel empowered, not encouraged to voice their opinions.

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