Twitter Terms of Service and the limits to free speech

Free speech doesn't mean careless talk^ - NARA...

Free speech doesn’t mean careless talk^ – NARA – 535383 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We often believe that when we tweet, we exercise free speech. Our illusion is reinforced by society that claims that freedom of speech is democracy’s foundation. On Twitter, our speech is only free to the extent that it conforms to Twitter’s terms of service. All communities are bound together by a shared opinion and Twitter is no different. Terms of service limit our public discourse and our digital discourse. However, beyond the terms of service, the world continues to exist. Therein we see the political problem that plagues the West and its faith in liberal discourse. The liberal discourse believes that words shape deeds and belief creates behaviour. When someone is excluded from Twitter or the public discourse, the common belief is that their ideas have been refuted or rebutted. Otherwise, they would still be part of the marketplace of ideas that is supposed to animate public discourse. Instead, they continue to act on their banned opinions and belief. Here, liberal discourse faces a difficulty by thoughts it cannot refute or rebut. It disagrees with them but it relies on satire or bans them when unable to refute them. The terms of service undermine the marketplace of ideas by excluding that which would challenge the community’s opinion. In this, the liberal community’s source is a tyrannical idea that public opinion is liberal.

Public opinion is history’s most effective tyrant

Despite its illiberal basis, public opinion sees itself as tolerant and democratic. The democratic tolerance masks the zeal to regulate the public discourse. Public opinion regulates the public domain better than any government. However, unlike a government, public opinion does more; it tyrannizes thought. The tyranny expands through social media platforms. The platforms mediate our access to public discourse and the digital public domain. They create a physical barrier that controls access. Their terms of service limit our access to ideas that challenge the community’s orthodoxy.

Beyond our community, excluded discourse and nature continue to exist

Beyond social media’s reach and its common opinion, the excluded discourse continues. Without access to that discourse, users become vulnerable to demagogues. The demagogues enforce a public orthodoxy that undermines free speech in the name of free speech. So long as you repeat the orthodoxy, you can speak freely. However, a democratic tension emerges. Public opinion, while reflecting the common opinion, does not define the community. Public opinion is changeable. It becomes a political instrument to be captured. In the past, this was difficult as democratic institutions resisted public opinion. Today, social media platforms make it easier to capture public opinion by eroding institutions that resist public opinion.

Social media erodes the institutions that would resist public opinion’s tyranny

The institutions that resist public opinion are families, schools, and churches, which shape the democratic citizen’s character. They prepare them to participate in the public domain. When citizens have unmediated access to the public domain democracy flourishes. By contrast, social media penetrates and erodes the institutions. It conditions the citizen to accept rather than resist the tyranny of public opinion. Our terms of service become the limit of free speech and enable public opinion’s tyranny as they limit our access to discourse beyond public opinion’s orthodoxy.



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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