The U.S. Constitution is a rigid, virtually unyielding document by design-amended only 27 times in its run as the oldest codified set of supreme laws still active in the world.
As such, it's not surprising that the Constitution-more specifically, the First Amendment and its protections for free speech-sits front and center in ongoing debates regarding the pre-eminence of social media and its potential to shape the public discourse on everything from crocs to Christina Aguilera to Crimea.
It's been stated ad nauseum-certainly, by this humble writer-but the world is vastly different than it was 20 years ago and social media is the product of technological developments moving at a blistering pace.
Case and point-this time a decade ago, Twitter was little more than a concept that hadn't gotten off the ground yet. Now? Twitter is the preferred method of communication for the most powerful man on the planet and has already proven its ability to affect national and international affairs in a nearly instantaneous manner.
These chatrooms and message boards; these profiles, newsfeeds, uplouds and upvotes; these comments and tweets and likes, emojis, posts, gifs-this is our public forum now, and it's only going to become more so as people gravitate toward social media and younger tech-centric folks age into the primary blocs for voters and consumers, the movers and shakers of the world.
And it's proving difficult to apply the Constitution-a document written and ratified in the day and age of powdered wigs, snuff tobacco and muzzle-loaded muskets-in this new arena. First Amendment protections and notions of unlawful censorship have been making headlines lately, with a lot of chatter swirling around Alex Jones (of InfoWars fame) and his banishment from tech giants including Twitter, iTunes and Youtube in recent weeks.
Jones' ouster and the dismantling of his media empire-which depended heavily on these outlets-may be taking up a lot of text space and air time, but this is an issue that's only now reaching a head since social media came of age in the mid-aughts. It's a dead horse that's been beaten and resurrected and beaten to death, time and time again.
You'll find plenty of examples, both complainants and plaintiffs-primarily from conservatives, though those who decry the judge, jury and executioner role of social media corporations come from all political stripes. In the media sphere, it ranges from Prager University to Progress Now, from conservative-libertarian Ben Shapiro to liberal acolytes like Kyle Kulinski and David Pakman.
The argument varies in tone and theme, though substantially it's the same-social media behemots like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Youtube are, for better or worse, often where people go to form their world views and communicate their ideas. This means that public discourse and free speech-the fundamental basis of a functioning democracy-are curated by a select few, a small group of individuals with little to no oversight and suspicions of political animus.
Now, it's important to note that accusations of political manipulation by social media companies aren't valid simply by virtue of their own existence. Much like any accustion, they have to be backed up with evidence.
There are also plenty of examples where Silicon Valley executives opted to sit back and allow dangerous rhetoric to go unchecked, sometimes to the point where inciting imminent harm (one of the few limitations placed on the First Amendment in the United States) has occurred.
That being said, many of these concerns are valid. Entities like Reddit, Google and Facebook own such a large chunk of internet traffic that people interact with them on a more consistent basis than their own friends, family and colleagues.
It's both naive and foolhardy to look at the sheer amount of power these companies have and then simply shrug and ignore the possible implications. That's where much of the issue lies-the balkanization of media, whether you're talking about the dominance of sites like Facebook or Twitter, or the fact that Youtube is the only real contender in public video-sharing.
The only problem is that it's-technically, mind you-a non-issue. Free speech may be in a precarious position, but the First Amendment isn't under threat because the First Amendment doesn't apply to private businesses. By the Constitution, U.S. citizens have every right to speak their minds in traditional settings or means, but every time a person uses a social media platform-whether that's a comment, post or the content they view-they're using the corporate and intellectual property of Silicon Valley honchos.
Chalk it up as both a win and a loss for anarcho-capitalists, the same people who staunchly support both corporate autonomy and individual freedoms. In these cases, the Alex Joneses of the world aren't subject to the Constitution, but to terms of agreement dictated by the platforms they use-fluid, often flimsy documents, altered constantly and written in vague, wishy-washy language that gives tech executives despotic powers to determine what content they will or will allow.
Historically, these rulings lack logical or applicative consistency, which speaks to the whims of a given moment instead of a legal or moralistic standard to abide by.
So, how do we ensure our talking spaces are kept safe? Does that mean companies like Twitter have to be nationalized and treated as a public utility, or are there ways government can step in-be it through legal frameworks like Net Neutrality or old-fashioned monopoly busting-that retain these protections without sacrificing the competitive benefits of the private sector?
That's the real discussion-because, as of now, there's little the American people or Congress can do to protect the First Amendment in the social media sphere, short of hand-wringing and pithy slaps on the wrist for Silicon Valley.
It's a disconcerting train of thought to speculate what could happen if these corporations decide to silence certain voices or manipulate opinions en masse-whether to promote their vision of the world or to protect their own wallets. Let's hope it never comes to that.