I have been an Internet meme lover since my teenage years, especially slightly offensive ones that push the boundaries. Back when I was in China, a country that is largely seen as lacking freedom of speech, I was very interested in a political meme of a former chairman — digging around and joking about his past events and things he said. One of my social media accounts was suspended due to posting that meme multiple times. The meme was supposedly “politically sensitive” though I thought it wasn’t inappropriate at all. Well, that clearly shows the amount of freedom you have on the Chinese internet — none.
Then I came to America, a country in which its citizens valued freedom more than anything else. This time, for something more “offensive,” I started watching jihadist memes on Youtube — yes, they were very funny, and of course, I did it to make fun of terrorists, not to endorse them. Those edited music videos and memes reached their peak popularity around 2016 when ISIS also expanded to its peak. These videos, including my previous YouTube channel, survived until they were taken down recently for violating their “violent criminal organizations” policy. In case you wonder what I posted, I only uploaded the infamous ISIS song without any explicit scene or incitement of violence at all. Remember, this song used to be all over the internet.
Of course, I wouldn’t sue Google for banning my channel as they are just a private corporation, making decisions according to their policy; but in my opinion, the way they censor content is arbitrary and harmful to society, given the fact that they not only take down the more “socially unacceptable” content but also popular conservative ones as well. There sometimes seems to be no difference between China and the US regarding freedom of speech on the internet.
What Exactly Is Freedom of Speech?
Having read my story, you might actually agree with YouTube’s decision. For example, from a liberal standpoint, you can argue that making memes about Islamic terrorists is going to strengthen the stereotypes we have on Muslims and potentially promote Islamophobia, while from a conservative standpoint you can say how terrorists have caused much damage to the world and to the US, and thus we should be harsh on terrorism related content and ban anything jihad-related.
However, I started to seriously think about the concept of freedom of speech after getting “suppressed.” How is the ISIS song or any kind of socially unaccepted content not okay within the realm of free speech, if we still allegedly support “free” speech?
I’d like to bring up the rulings of two Supreme Court cases regarding the First Amendment. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court states that “the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is ‘directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,’” while in Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court also ruled that even a socially unacceptable expression like burning the American flag should be allowed since the act itself does not involve a breach of peace.
That is where we get the very politically incorrect, but true, aphorism “hate speech is free speech.” Even on the internet, except for the direct organizing of criminal activities (and I agree that such should be taken down), nothing that exists online can actually incite imminent violence, neither do those memes or even, for example, blatantly hateful or neo-nazi content. Such controversial speech should be allowed to undergo critical evaluation by users.
Furthermore, the concept of hate speech is also highly subjective, such as when people on the far left (who themselves are advocates for banning all hate speech) use abusive language toward evangelicals, Covid vaccine skeptics, and Donald Trump. They do not even realize how hateful their speech is; but according to my belief in free speech, all such speech should still be allowed.
Yes, social media companies are not governments and should not enforce the US Constitution, but we have to admit how powerful Big Tech is in this modern Internet era. Acting with the roles of a government but by their standards.
Why Is Big Tech Harming American Society?
As a conservative who often surfs the internet for news, I can see how they constantly promote content from mainstream liberal media instead of a mix of perspectives, especially when you search anything on Google or see so many fact-checkers under Instagram feed posts. What’s more, almost any internet service we use in the US today involves either Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Microsoft, powerful corporations that are relatively free from government limitations, control the society’s narrative, arbitrarily judge what’s right or wrong, and know all of your personal information. In other words, whenever we are on the Internet, we are literally under the tyranny of the few. We need to realize that we have much more freedom in real-world American society compared to that on the internet.
What Is the Solution?
First of all, reduce your time on social media and come back to real life more often!
A solution promoting online free speech is to create new public platforms in response to the Big Tech monopolies. One of the biggest differences though, between the new platform and Big Tech, is that alleged misinformation, controversial ideology like homophobia, or blatant hate speech should not be banned and instead left for the public to judge. Only speech that causes tangible harm, such as recruitment for any sort of violence (no matter in the name of far-right, jihadist, or BLM), the leaking of personal information, or defamation that could potentially harm individuals, should be banned, in which Big Tech currently does a horrible job on.
Recently, conservatives have already resorted to many alternative platforms in the wake of Big Tech censorship, but if those new platforms cannot reach such goals mentioned above, then I will perceive them as no different from the Big Tech that they are allegedly fighting against.