On March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified before Congress about possible Chinese sway over the social media platform and the damage its production of short videos have done to kids’ mental health. The testimony was unique in that it brought both sides of the political spectrum together to convey their concerns about the app’s influence, ultimately with the goal of wanting to ban the platform nationwide for the sake of protecting American data and impressionable kids.
Throughout lawmakers’ attempts at instituting a ban, Chew and TikTok have been supported by advocates of free speech. Chew himself even posted a video last week trying to amass support by claiming 150 million users will lose their “voices,” remarking “That’s almost half of the U.S. coming to TikTok.”
Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knights First Amendment Institute of Columbia University, said in a statement two days before Chew’s testimony that, “Restricting access to a speech platform that is used by millions of Americans every day would set a dangerous precedent for regulating our digital public sphere more broadly. Banning or restricting access to social media is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, and we should be very wary about giving the U.S. government that kind of power.”
I agree with Jaffer. Authoritarian regimes banning mediums of mass communications, especially ones like TikTok, which no matter how ill-advisedly, is used as a news source, forum of discussion and conversation, and of course entertainment for many people, is wrong. Moreover, at the time I am writing this (a day after Chew’s testimony), there has not been any evidence of China or any other country manipulating American user data for their own means, making the banning of TikTok wrong. But paradoxically, I also disagree with Jaffer’s point because of the nature of social media platforms, leading me to ask: Has free speech ever existed on social media in the first place?
My answer: no.
The First Amendment may give individuals protection from government censorship, but social media are private companies and set their own guidelines for censorship through moderating hate speech, obscenity, misinformation, disinformation, and harassment. If you don’t follow those regulations, they can delete your post or ban you from the platform as they see fit, and this is sometimes done with good reason. Jaffer and others should have already been aware of this, even if TikTok and other social media appear to act as sort of a public forum for users to “freely” engage with information and each other, they aren’t one because they aren’t public.
Big tech insider Jaron Lanier discusses how the medium of social media is designed to and effectively does prevent freedom of speech, among other issues surrounding the influence of social media, in his book “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” His fifth argument, “social media is making what you say meaningless,” tackles freedom of speech on social media through the lens of social media’s decontextualization of what we say.
Lanier writes, “Online, we often have little to no ability to know or influence the context in which our expression will be understood.” Ads for Gatorade on YouTube come before clips from last night’s news. A post about a protest on one’s feed is followed by a make-up tutorial. When everything is mashed together, what people say loses its own context and is absorbed into social media’s lack of context, causing posts to be interpreted incorrectly and used in malicious ways.
Lanier cites that this is particularly the case with women and girls who “express themselves online” and “find that their words and images are sexualized or incorporated into a violent or manipulative framework.” In addition, he mentions this is part of what leads to posts about news being labeled “fake” when in fact they are very real.
All of this is not to say that I support Congress’s attempt to ban TikTok. Even if I believe freedom of speech is something nonexistent on social media like TikTok, I still believe in people’s right to believe they retain freedom of speech on the app which controls every aspect of what they post.