Posted: March 30th, 2022
The Positive and Negative Effects of Freedom of Expression within the Social Media in the U.K.
In essence, social media in the UK provides an amazing platform for people to freely express their views, share information, and interact. Indeed, as McGoldrick (2013, p. 49) observes, “Facebook and other internet-based social networking sites (SNSs) have revolutionized modern communications.” Some of the most popular social media platforms in the country include, but that are not limited to, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. It is important to note that unlike in the physical world where relations between people are governed by various social rules and etiquette standards, relations on social media tend to present a limitless and unrestricting facade. In recent times, some countries have attempted to limit the way people relate on social media – even closely monitoring content in an attempt to ensure that freedom of expression in social media is confined within some predetermined limits. In some quarters, the said attempts have been resisted and condemned. It should be noted, from the onset, that in the U.K., like is the case in so many other developed societies, physical confrontations are in essence the basis on which hate speech law is founded. However, in the modern world in which we live, cyberspace has become yet another ‘living space’ parallel to the physical world. This text concerns itself with the positive as well as negative effects of freedom of expression within the social media in the United Kingdom. A common stance will thereafter be adopted.
There are a wide range of benefits that would accrue on various fronts, thanks to the enhancement of freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. These will be highlighted in this section. Indeed, as an article in ICCPR points out, “‘everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (Coe 2015, p. 4). The UK is a signatory to ICCPR.
Freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. plays an important social role of promoting communication amongst people. In the words of Bernal (2014, p. 269), “…much of the current use of the internet relates to the expression of ideas.” In this case, every member of the society is offered a platform to express him or herself without reservation. To begin with, most people happen to have weaknesses that limit their ability to communicate effectively in physical social settings. These weaknesses include, but they are not limited to, shyness, self-consciousness, nervousness, etc. The relevance of social media when it comes to advancing such citizens in U.K. a platform where they can express their political and social views without the fear of ‘the crowd’ cannot be overstated. Next, social media is a great place for people to freely exchange ideas. In essence, physical social interactions have a wide range of limiting factors that limit the ability of people to effectively interact. These include cost and distance. Interactions on social media are inherently cheap and geographical distance is not really an issue as the advent of the internet has made communication instantaneous. Towards this end, people can exchange ideas on a wide range of areas and benefit from each other’s knowledge, expertise, and knowhow. Issues of interest may include politics, social, and health concerns, etc. Thanks to freedom of expression on social media, these ideas can be shared freely without fear of reprisal. Lastly, freedom of expression in social media effectively levels the playing field. It is important to note that all a person needs to access social media platforms is internet and membership/subscription to a social media platform. This effectively means that thanks to freedom of expression within the social media, people from all walks of life are given a platform to proclaim their views on a wide range of concerns, regardless of their political affiliation, religious beliefs, economic and social standing, etc.
Freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. also provides journalists with an important platform to execute their functions (UNESCO 2018). The relevance of journalism as a professional calling cannot be overstated when it comes to engaging the public on issues that benefit the society as a whole. The three functions of journalism are; to inform, to educate and finally, to entertain (Berning 2010). These roles cannot be played well in an environment where freedom of expression in the social media is stifled. This is more so the case given that as it has been pointed out in the introductory section of this text, in the modern world in which we live, cyberspace has become yet another ‘living space’ parallel to the physical world. Firstly, thanks to the social media, journalists can execute their function of informing the public without fear of being frogged before the courts for sensitive stories. As Bartlett (2011, p. 9) points out, “the internet is now almost certainly the greatest source of information for people living in the U.K. today.” Some of the stories the media does do rattle the government, corporations, as well as individuals because of their content. This is more so the case when it comes to issues relating to corruption. Secondly, the public needs to be educated on a wide range of issues so as to make lives better. Issues of concern in this case could include making wise voting choices and decisions, how individuals ought to stand up to their rights, etc. Freedom of expression in social media comes in handy in facilitating this particular role of journalism. Lastly, in seeking to execute their role to entertain, journalists could do some pieces that displease some persons, i.e. celebrities. This is more so the case when it comes to the coverage of what such individuals could regard as their private lives. However, there is really a thin line between the private life and the public life of a celebrity. For instance, as Melville-Brown (2013) observes, “while tabloid interference into the lives of all celebrities is feverish, there seems some eerie obsession with footballers that makes ‘exclusives’ about their private business so newsworthy.” As long as journalists do not go overboard in an attempt to entertain the masses, there is need to protect their freedom of expression on social media so that they can efficiently execute this particular role.
Freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. is also of great relevance in widening the space for special interest groups to effectively function. In essence, special interest groups seek to promote shared concerns so as to cause or bring about meaningful change (Erbschloe 2017). Some of the special interests that some special interest groups undertake include, but they are not limited to women issues, electoral justice, transparency in government, etc. In the U.K. there are a number of registered special interest groups. These include the Climate Group, Friends of Earth, Fathers 4 Justice, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Amnesty International, Electoral Reform Society, etc. To begin with, freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. would permit special interest groups to uncover social ills without fear of reprisal. Issues that could bring about adverse outcomes for such groups if freedom of expression in social media is not protected and enhanced include corruption and unethical practices in government and corporations. Secondly, freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. would enable special interest groups to sensitize the public on a myriad of issues on health, wellbeing, society, etc. Issues of interest on this front include how to react to disease outbreaks, how to report familial abuse, etc. Others include how to ensure that that individual rights are not trampled upon, how to report crime, how to address corruption in public offices, etc. Lastly, special interest groups come in handy in pressurizing the government, multinationals, and influential/personalities and agencies to act on issues that could be of interest to the general public. A good example in this case would be extreme logging, whereby there is clear destruction of environment by multinational timber corporations. In such a case, the fact that such enterprises comply with the law in their business undertakings would mean that their activities go unhindered or unchallenged. However, the damage done to the environment in the long-term could be significant. Freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. would permit special interest groups to popularize such an issue without fear of reprisal so as to bring about desired change.
Regardless of the positive effects of enhanced freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K., it should be noted that the move would definitely have some undesired effects. These will be highlighted in this section.
Promoting freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. could lead to the trampling of the rights and freedoms of other persons. First and foremost, it would be easy for people to defame others to settle personal scores. When everybody can freely express him or herself on social media without fear of repercussions, it would be easy to post any information about a friend or acquaintance regardless of authenticity. Such information could negatively impact the affected person’s social, professional, as well as familial life. This happened in the case of Stocker v Stocker (2016), whereby an ex-husband was awarded £5,000 in damages for defamatory statements his ex-wife had made on Facebook about him. The court in this case ruled that the ex-wife had indeed defamed the claimant (Brett-Wilson 2016). Next, excessive freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. could motivate journalists and other purveyors of information to neglect their role of confirming the authenticity of information coming their way. This would lead to erroneous reporting and, thus, misinformation such as the recent spike in fake news in various jurisdictions. Lastly, freedom of expression could be used as an excuse to infringe on the privacy of other persons. As it has been pointed out elsewhere in this text, there is often a thin line between the private and public lives of celebrities and public figures. This line could even be thinner with the further enhancement of freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K.
Freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. could be used by players in the social, political, and business spheres to advance misleading, erroneous, and iniquitous agendas. To begin with, on the political front, political actors could attempt to promote false agendas and discredit their opponents using a wide range of unfair tactics. Social media would be an attractive medium to play dirty political games due to the number of people that are instantaneously accessible. Generally, “information and gossip travel so much more quickly with the advent of social media” (Lewis and Crick 2014 p. 13). Next, business enterprises could also use social media to compete unfairly in the absence of concise guidelines regulating freedom of expression in social media. For instance, when freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. is unlimited, it would be easy for Business A to malign the reputation of Business B by posting false or misleading information about Business B’s products and/or services. Lastly, on the social front, unlimited freedom of expression within the social media could motivate various organizations or individuals to not only present, but also promote some issues that go against the moral fabric or are against the common good. Such issues could include, but they are not limited to, unpopular religious beliefs, indecent social viewpoints, etc. A good example of this would be the utilization of social media by terror organizations to spread radicalization. Also according to Bartlett (2011, p. 6), 47% of teachers surveyed pointed out that they had at some point “encountered arguments within lessons or submitted schoolwork that contain inaccurate internet-based content they regard as deliberately packaged by the producers to be misleading or deceitful…”
Freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. could also inadvertently lead to the promotion of criminal and illegal activities. To begin with, it is important to note that in recent times, cyber bullying has been a major issue of concern, with many people, specifically teenagers, reportedly being harassed online (Souza 2016). With unlimited freedom of expression within the social media, cyber bulling, which is an offense under the law in most jurisdictions, could assume the form of shaming, embarrassing, or threatening targets online. This has the impact of straining or disturbing the psychological, and in some instances the physical, wellbeing of targets. Secondly, thanks to the number of people who could be instantaneously reached on social media, the same could be used to promote online scams in instances where no regulations exist to govern freedom of expression. This is more so the case given that those promoting such scams could hide behind the veil of freedom of expression by either leaving subtle clues about scams or by feigning ignorance over the information they pass on to others over various social media platforms. Thirdly, it is also important to note that freedom of expression within the social media could be used to pass on illegal, dangerous, or otherwise classified information to a large number of people. This is particularly a great concern because as a popular urban quote goes, ‘the internet never forgets.’ Information that could be freely shared when unlimited freedom of expression on social media is promoted include such subjects as how to make a bomb, how to make poison capable of killing a person, how to sabotage the government, etc. In the past, classified information that could threaten national security has also been leaked, with the most notorious of such leaks being the one by Edward Snowden (Scaife 2017).
In the final analysis, it is important to note that the relevance of promoting freedom of expression within social media in the U.K. cannot be overstated. This is more so the case given the social benefits that accrue when people are free to express their views online freely and without any fear of reprisal. These benefits have been clearly highlighted in this text. However, freedom of expression within the social media in the U.K. ought not to be absolute – particularly because there are numerous opportunities for abuse of the same when there are no clear guidelines to regulate people’s social media interactions. Today, as Rowbottom (2012) observes, “expression on the internet is now regulated by a wide range of UK laws, including public order laws, media laws and laws that were drafted to target poison pen letters and nuisance phone calls.” It should, however, be noted that the said laws and guidelines should be designed to maintain sanity and order, while at the same time protecting the rights and freedoms of participants in social media interactions. This is to say that such guidelines should not, and indeed must not, be designed to gag or prevent people from sharing their views and opinions on various social media platforms.
Bartlett, J 2011, Truth, Lies and the Internet: A Report into Young People’s Digital Fluency, viewed 28 April 2018, https://www.demos.co.uk/files/Truth_-_web.pdf
Bernal, P 2014, Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy, Cambridge University Press, London.
Berning, N 2010, Narrative Means to Journalistic Ends: A Narratological Analysis of Selected Journalistic Reportages, Springer Science & Business Media, New York, NY.
Brett-Wilson 2016, Ex-husband awarded £5,000 damages for Facebook libel, viewed 28 April 2018, http://www.brettwilson.co.uk/blog/claimant-awarded-5000-damages-in-facebook-libel-case/
Coe, P 2015, The Social Media Paradox: An Intersection with Freedom of Expression and the Criminal Law, Information and Communications Technology Law, 24(1), pp. 16-40.
Erbschloe, M 2017, Social Media Warfare: Equal Weapons for All, CRC Press, New York, NY.
Lewis, J & Crick, P (ed.) 2014, Media Law and Ethics in the 21st Century: Protecting Free Expression and Curbing Abuses, Macmillan International Higher Education, New York, NY.
McGoldrick, D 2013, The Limits of Freedom of Expression on Facebook and Social Networking Sites: A UK Perspective, Human Rights Law Review, 13(1), pp. 125–151.
Melville-Brown 2013, Public Figures, Private Lives, viewed 28 April 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/public-figures-private-lives-122177.html
Rowbottom, J.H 2012, To Rant, Vent and Converse: Protecting Low Level Digital Speech, Cambridge Law Journal, 71(2), pp. 112-119.
Scaife, L 2017, Social Networks as the New Frontier of Terrorism: #Terror, Taylor and Francis, New York, NY.
Souza, M.D 2016, Spirituality in Education in a Global, Pluralized World, Routledge, London
UNESCO 2018, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2017/2018, UNESCO Publishing, Paris.
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