Trial by social media
In the legal system, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. When someone is swept up in social media outrage, they are afforded no such luxury.
Before social media, debates might have taken place between friends in a café or bar. They would have played out face to face in a safe environment where each person could express their opinion away from the glare of the international media free from the fear of repercussion. Facebook and Twitter have destroyed that safety. Now, the wrong choice of word can turn an innocuous comment into a global Twitterstorm.
Cases like that of Natasha Tynes’, who lost her book deal because of a social media backlash to a Tweet she posted complaining about a Metro worker eating on a train, put people off sharing their opinions. The novelist left the US fearing for the safety of her family after suffering a torrent of abuse online. Out of fear of drawing media attention, people are self-censoring online. The place that was once heralded as a platform of free debate has been stifled. Self-censorship prevails as users fear a public backlash for expressing their opinion.
Free speech by definition affords citizens the right to speak their mind. However, it does not mean they can do so without consequences. If someone wants to express themselves online, they are free to do so without the threat of government censorship. However, if those opinions are inflammatory and spark social outrage, the users that are outraged by the statement are entitled to express that outrage. Self-censorship out of fear of generating a negative public response is not an erosion of free speech. It is the public sphere setting social boundaries on what is acceptable and unacceptable. For it to be an erosion of free speech, the state or another entity would have to restrict the expression of certain beliefs. Because people are free to express whatever opinions they choose online, including anger, free speech remains intact, even in a climate when publicly abhorrent views are challenged through social media outrage.
[P1] Social media users self-censor online to avoid becoming the target of outrage. [P2] Therefore, social media outrage erodes free speech. [P3] Free speech is a positive force in society. [P4] Therefore, social media outrage is a negative force in society.
[Rejecting P2] There is no erosion of free speech as people are still able to express whatever opinions they choose. [Rejecting P4] Social media outrage is also protected under free speech principles.