Social Media & Censorship: Freedom of Expression and Risk

Immanuel Kant, a central figure of 18th century Enlightenment, once said, "Nothing is divine, but what is agreeable to reason."

Yet, over two hundred and thirty years later in a world defined by nations, states, tribes, borders, and religions, we are still confused as to how to resolve the divide that exists between science, empirical fact, cultural traditions, and spiritual beliefs that require us to put faith in that which can neither be seen, proven, nor measured.

The difficulty is ever clearer when 'blind faith' is coupled with social media, an almost inescapable digital footprint, and the hunger for equality, truth, and self-expression. Now, we must acknowledge that online communities and platforms are facilitating discussions which were previously held in court, the plaza, or the corner cafe.

Famous media theorists like Jürgen Habermas suggested that the power of the internet was two-fold, depending upon the regime in place, when he said, "The Internet has certainly reactivated the grassroots of an egalitarian public of writers and readers. However, computer-mediated communication in the web can claim unequivocal democratic merits only for a special context: It can undermine the censorship of authoritarian regimes that try to control and repress public opinion. In the context of liberal regimes, the rise of millions of fragmented chat rooms across the world tend instead to lead to the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics. Within established national public spheres, the online debates of web users only promote political communication, when news groups crystallize around the focal points of the quality press, for example, national newspapers and political magazines."

However, authoritarian or liberal governments aside, I would argue still:"Social media is the new public sphere."

The benefits, as well as the risks of social media, mean that our words, and our worlds, are more deeply scrutinized. Now, we are easier to access and more open to interpretation. When interacting with an individual online we are devoid of visual cues, our tone is difficult to understand, our intent sometimes impossible to decipher. We resort to emojis and declarations like "Just kidding" or "Don't be mad" to describe what might otherwise be obvious.

In essence, we have become both scared, and scarred.

With all of the benefits of communicating and sharing our lives via visual mediums, instant messages, real time video, and status updates, another perhaps less obvious threat has presented itself: that of self-censorship.

We have come to fear how our words, opinions, and beliefs may negatively affect our lives if they are misinterpreted or considered 'unpopular' by the masses. Whether a joke is misconstrued or a political position deemed controversial, we have seen the negative effects this sharing can have on an individual's life and we've become frightened to share.

The result?

We've begun to eliminate the most powerful thing about sharing platforms. We have stopped using them for meaningful social debate because we don't want to risk our livelihoods on what we believe in. Many of us have become either weak or bipolar; strong and boisterous when our passions are ignited about the meaningless, or weak - perhaps even silent - when it comes to our deeper, more meaningful convictions. If it's not well favored by the masses, we just may shrink.

With this in mind, I've tried to develop a few handy tips for the next time you may feel like sharing, but don't want to suffer from the paralysis of self-censorship:

1. Recognize your cultural lens. It's easy to think your truth is the truth. We all do this. Ask yourself: would I feel the same should the color of my skin, religion, or nationality be any different? This may seem obvious, but you'll be surprised how little you actually do this. This does not suggest that the content of your character would be any different, but try putting yourself into the shoes of those you feel compelled to comment about. Then see if you would say the same.

2. Ask yourself, "If this comment was seen by my boss, a recruiter, or someone I admire, would I be embarrassed?"
The problem with self-censorship is often our own inability to know what constitutes a risk and what constitutes a provocative opinion that's admired. In the new public sphere of social media, ask yourself, "Would I be willing to share this with my boss or colleagues?" I've often found that when the answer is, "Yes," it's the place I'm meant to be. If the answer is, "No," it's time to either re-examine my stance... or get out.

3. Don't be afraid to have an opinion. Susan B. Anthony once said, ""Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations can never effect a reform." We all know what she did. Every powerful figure who fought for equality was criticized. I'm not saying you have to be tortured, but that may be exactly what your heart feels like sometimes. The most popular people are often the most easy to forget. Likely a bystander to inequality, they shrug as they get promoted, and may retire with regret. Don't be afraid to be unpopular. Live your life boldly, have no regrets.

Whether you share a serious comment about a cause you believe in, or you are protecting the art of satire, never underestimate the power of words.

#JeSuisCharlie has shown us that the freedom to speak freely it is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, of all human rights. Our ability to exercise it, and not shrink in the face of fear and judgment, is the basis of freedom.

If we are too afraid to say things because the consequences outweigh human progress, then we must all ask ourselves, "What are we even living for?"