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FREEDOM OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Published: 
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

There has been a lot of debate over the recent detainment and charging of a certain individual during the past few days. Since there is yet to be a determination as to whether a criminal offence was committed I will not say too much on the matter itself. From where I look on though, it seems a bit far-fetched that someone would be detained for almost three days over an offence which carries a maximum sentence of $200. Surely, an individual in these circumstances will have a good case for wrongful imprisonment even if he is convicted of the offence.

The recent unfolding of events sparked a rage of fury amongst social media users who expressed outrage that the State would dare interfere in their personal lives. Some people made videos in which they denounced the actions of the State and demanded that it stay out of social media. According to them, social media was theirs and was not to be tampered lightly with by any arm of the State.

Social media is undoubtedly a phenomenon when it comes to mass media. The ability to post your views online instantly and share it with the world is simply amazing. Millions or billions of people, “twittering,” “posting,” sharing information with the entire world is nothing short of a social and technological wonder.

The United States President, Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are famed for getting their messages across to their people outside of the big media houses, MSNBC, CNN and FOX, and in India, the English language print media. They were able to win elections utilising “twitter.” To this day, they “tweet” about matters of domestic and foreign policy.

One of the favourite social media hits is Facebook. A movie was made about the formation and evolution of this billion dollar company/online social media and social networking service. The fact that Facebook and other online social networking services are worth billions of dollars today is also due to desktops, laptops, tablet computers, smartphones etc, technological spawns which can access information in a jiffy.

Does the exercise of the State’s authority in locking up a person for comments he allegedly made on social media seem to point to a coming repressive measure intended to suppress the free speech which exists on social media? Judging from the comments of young people on online social networks, it appears they feel unduly censored and that their freedom of speech exercised via social media now depends on the will of a despotic administration. Who dare suggest that the lash of the law could be brought down on the back of a critic at any moment!

I sympathise with online social media users and agree that their freedom of speech ought not to be abridged or withdrawn at the whim and fancy of the State/government. However, I want to suggest that our freedom of speech in this forum has demoralised us and to a large extent made us illiterate.

No respect is paid to the dead. How many times have we seen live imagery of the immediate aftermath of brutal and inhumane deaths? Pictures of naked bodies of dead children are plastered across online social networks with no regard to the fact there may be a young sibling, a weeping mother or just simply a conservative bereaved family. People use their phones to video private and deep expressions of sorrow by some individuals. There is absolutely no respect for privacy any more!

There is a tsunami of information with online social networks but a lot of false information easily becomes legitimised by publication. People using false accounts/identities are frequently peddling lies, innuendoes and half truths with a larger public lapping it up, so to speak, with no real means of testing the veracity or truth of what is being stated.

I remember a message which was recently shared amongst the larger public concerning an uprising in Port-of-Spain. The entire country immediately went into panic mode and there was bacchanal on the roads for people seeking to get out of the capital city.

Some might say that I am totally ignorant of the good things which are shared via online social networking and its consequent good effects. In response, the question to consider is whether the good results would not have also been achieved otherwise.

When one looks at comments emanating from “grannykilla” and others (whom I will not name for precaution that their online identities are in fact their real names), it is evident that this type of freedom of speech has fostered an ignoble mixture of racism, hatred and obscenity. Labour under no delusion. We are not in a good place as a country.

I do not suggest for one moment that there should be any extreme response and/or arbitrary measure extinguishing people’s rights to speak freely on online sites. Such a measure may at any moment be hurried through the Legislature with a simple majority.

We should, however, exercise care in what we say and do via online social networks whilst we continue this debate.