Social media is one of the sensations of the information age. It has made access to information easier than it was years ago. Sharing and receiving information on platforms like Twitter and Facebook has become part of human life. Access to the internet and smartphone has decentered the state and traditional media houses as the monopoly of information.
These platforms have become very important tools for the freedom of expression and speech. They are enablers and channels that individuals use to share their thoughts and opinions on matters to do with governance, relationships, sexuality, religion and sports.
Back in the days of yore, one needed to access a journal, newspaper, television and radio to share their opinions or to pick an expert’s or their leader’s mind on different things. Times have changed. Government statements are published on social media. Random people have their opinions plastered all over the pages of these platforms.
In a bid to purportedly clean the internet of fake news, dangerous misinformation and harmful information states have enacted laws that incriminate the use of social media in certain ways. Different social media companies have also come up with numerous ways to counter this ill. From temporary bans to permanent bans, flagging posts that are deemed to be against policies and on some occasions warnings.
Recently the government of Uganda started the process of amending the Computer Misuse Act to criminalize the sharing of information that is malicious or promotes hate speech. This law suggests imprisonment and denial of access to public office for anyone found guilty of these “heinous” crimes. Many governments around the world are taking steps in the same direction.
At the end of the American presidential election, Donald Trump’s Twitter account was suspended because the company opined that his presence on the platform would risk further incitement of violence in America. This month, it was Andrew Tate who was banned from Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube for violating their hate speech policies.
Until last week, I did not know who this man was or what he stood for, but I can agree that throughout some of the things I have read that he has asserted in the past that he is a vile man in many ways. Andrew and Tate are not the only individuals who have been banned from social media. Numerous persons have been banned for what they have said or for pictures that they have shared.
The hallmark of any civilization is its ability to accept all forms of opinions and the ability to sieve out the chaff from the wheat. Gagging individuals because of their opinions do not achieve any good apart from creating an Orwellian society that seeks to control what the individual thinks and says.
Freedom of Speech Has Been Elevated by The Existence of Social Media
I do not seek to defend what anyone has said because I disagree with some of their positions, but my defence is for their right to say whatever they consider desirable. Seeking to limit the freedom of speech the way that states and social media companies are trying to do comes with a few problems.
The problem of ceding so much power to the states in determining what is acceptable or not
The history of the world is full of leaders who have used legal means to stop voices of dissent and to quash opponents. Here at home, the current regime has laboured to use sedition laws and the computer misuse act to either curtail the workings of journalists or to shut down the activists.
Limitations to freedom of speech and expression are the best gift we can give to tyrants. Any loving government would like to listen to its people and then would invest in better laws on defamation to counter grave lies and widen laws on sexual offences.
The role of the state in responding to hate news is to always volunteer the right information and to share it by any means possible
States have access to both traditional media and social media, and as such, they can offer a larger volume of information than any individual. This can only happen in nations where the state has inspired the confidence of its people.
Lies may move faster, but the truth will always be received by voices of reason. Let the nation states state the truth. The problem is giving hegemonies that own social media platforms the role of acting as moral arbiters.
We have permitted social media companies that are not accountable to our elected governments the right to create councils that determine truth from lies and words that aimed to create hate or violence. Consensus on what people want is determined at the ballot and not through councils of experts that are not accountable to the people at the end of their tenure.
The other big problem is the incentive of capital
The biggest need for these companies is to make money and to believe that their love for morality can outweigh their desire for capital is to show a strange level of naivety. These companies not only lack the mandate but also lack the incentive to pursue any form of acts that would impede their growth. You cannot give a moral duty to immoral entities.
The issue with banning or imprisoning people for what they have said or done is that it offers them and their opinions publicity and more mileage. And any form of publicity can be injurious. Let us not transform these villains into martyrs or heroes.
The last problem is to yield to the rule of the mob
Social media platforms have empowered their users to report any post that they deem to be unfit for certain reasons. I have used this function on some occasions with the desire of a post being pulled down because it defeats some kind of principle I live by.
The problem with this function is the premise that we have an agreed moral code as the world and that we react in a similar way to offensive statements. This is far from the truth. My Christian principles might be offensive to another and so may my atheist friends’ positions on my God.
When do we decide that this position has gathered enough notoriety to be cast in stone and therefore cannot be debated? Instead of empowering each individual to find hate in what they disagree with, let us educate ourselves on how to debate from different angles.
Use that comment button and if you do not want to use it, make use of your spaces to educate those around you on what you consider acceptable. We are so invested in trying to change the people we have never met that we have forgotten about those within our reach. Let us suffocate hate and lies with posts on truth, love and peace.
The Supreme Court of the Republic of Uganda made some interesting pronouncements in the landmark decision of Charles Onyango Obbo Vs Attorney General. In closing, permit me to quote one of the statements made by the late Mulenga J.S.C from this case, “Extending protection of the freedom of expression to false statements does not necessarily defeat the objective of upholding the truth, because while truth and falsity are mutually exclusive, the purposes for protecting both are not.”
Interesting read: Are Uganda’s Elites as Useless as Dr. Besigye Claims?
Author: Emmanuel Luwaga
Emmanuel Luwaga is a lawyer, passionate writer, debate coach and adjudicator.