Social Media vs. Free Speech


Under the light of riots, conflicts, revolutions (The Arab Spring), and modern wars; journalism and sharing information enters a new path with Social Media, a realm that’s not entirely empty of challenges. Sharing information fast, reaching, engaging and interacting with audiences online has become increasingly essential to spread news.

Technology and Social Media offers new ways to collect insights and data on audiences in order for news outlets to optimize their profit, through SEO (Search Engine Optimization), online campaigns, keywords and having an active presence on various Social Media outlets are all well planned strategies in order to reach as many people as possible, and with the help of data know exactly what various segments of society wants to read and offering them exactly that. Clicks translates into business profit and writing ‘viral’ articles means business for newspapers which many times intentionally baits with headlines that generates ‘clicks’ to gain spread and reach the attention of the online audiences.
Social Media is not only reshaping the news but it is also affecting it for good. According to a research by PEW Research Center “Facebook is the obvious news powerhouse among the social media sites. Roughly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults use the site, and half of those users get news there — amounting to 30% of the general population.”

So, how powerful is Social Media really? And what kind of impact does it have on societies, development, individuals, news and businesses?
According to Statista the number of Social Media users worldwide will continue to increase (see graph below), therefore it is also important to consider how Social Media can affect certain rights, such as the right of expression and freedom of speech.



Maybe the right thing to ask here is whether there is such a thing as free speech on Social Media, especially since powerhouses such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter more often than not curates the information we consume online to enforce a standard of acceptable speech defined by the common lowest denominator. Facebook for instance plays the role of “editor-in-chief” with its site terms & regulations and through their ever changing intrinsic algorithm system directly deciding what is allowed on their platform and in extension in our feed. In his article “Has Social Media Killed Free Speech” on Forbes, Kalev Leetaru questions whether Social Media will “ultimately lead to the demise of freedom of speech globally” instead of empowering everyone with a “voice”. According to him “[i]f Facebook’s Free Basics overcomes political hurdles and expands rapidly, Facebook will, for all intents and purposes, become the Internet itself for much of the developing world.”
How is this being met in a world ever so shaped by Social Media and the datafication of information we consume, and how can Social Media be held accountable if free speech deteriorates?
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states on Article 19 that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In the wake of increased numbers of refugees fleeing conflict zones, and (the many times irrelevant) fear of terrorism and terror attacks, yet again the Trump administration weighs increased scrutiny of Refugees’ Social Media. Through asking for passwords and login there is a clear breach of privacy but also of the question arises whether it also breaches on UN’s Article 19 of free speech as well as other Human Rights protecting refugees.

The question remains whether Social Media will force the justice system to introduce new international laws to abide by, in either way the impact of Social Media is not likely to stop anytime soon, how that will affect the developing countries and which development outcomes these countries will face over the next years remains in the hand of sets of algorithms.



  1. Zahra

    Really good, There is a lot of thought in this article and hopefully the free speech won’t stop and even if social media can effect how this will end, I hope humanity will as always help to do the right choice.


  2. Orestis

    In particular, I think the the last sentence is the most important one: “how that will affect the developing countries and which development outcomes these countries will face over the next years remains in the hand of sets of algorithms”. The real challenge is to connect social media with those challenges and see how we can benefit from them. Furthermore, while talking about social media and developing countries, it is of great importance to examine what is the percentage of social media users in those countries. The user percentage is very high in the US but, for instance in Nigeria, it might be significantly lower.

    1. Dalida

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting Orestis, I agree with you that we need to face the challenges posed by Social Media. In my opinion although beneficial in certain aspects, Algorithms will not necessary be advantageous to developing countries as since the algorithm’s are many times owned by markets that does not prioritize developing countries per se. The user increase of social media in various countries in Africa is as you mentioned still way lower compared to for instance a European country or the USA. It would definitely be interesting to examine the percentage of Social Media users in the developing countries to compare. Here’s an article from the past year with numbers on Social Media consumption in Africa
      If you have some time please check our other blog posts with some more comparison and statistics on developing countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *