Free Speech ≠ Uninhibited Reach

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“There were many geese chasing us.” It was a phrase I uttered in error — to describe an erratic day of errands with my sister — but it got me thinking.

The backwards words reflect the potential missteps in communication and how language can take you on a wild goose chase. It is words that are at the center of allegations that the former U.S. president incited the Jan. 6 capitol insurrection. Trump’s subsequent ban from Twitter sparked a firestorm about censorship, with many claiming the freeze-out was an infringement on his right to free speech. (See former Moonshine associate editor David Bunker’s opinion piece on conspiracy and misinformation in the context of that attack) 

A goose chase is the perfect metaphor for hours lost wading through endless Instagram stories, tracing retweets back to their source, or scrolling through circular conversations in the dark corners of Facebook. Yet as a society using these platforms we’ve grown accustomed to this world, to feeling like “there are geese chasing us,” and we believe them to be a worthy, and even necessary, part of life. We feel entitled to using them.

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Yet the freedom of expression afforded to U.S. citizens by the Constitution isn’t without caveat or consequence. You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded space. You can’t publish libelous information, you can’t engage in hate speech, and you can’t incite a riot. A company like Twitter — a corporation, not a government entity — has every right to follow its own policies (which users agree to when creating accounts) by blocking any individual, even the president. If anything, Twitter should be criticized for not acting sooner.

In my role as Moonshine’s digital content editor, I have immersed myself in understanding both the beauty and the madness of these mainstream online platforms. Like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, yet admittedly on a much smaller scale, I have to mediate heated interactions that happen on Moonshine’s profiles. (In our February 2020 news story, local law enforcement offices share how they grapple with regulating their own social media accounts.)

As our reach has grown, so has the level of back-and-forth. My experience moderating has taught me that online communities are an exercise in trust, control, and personal choice. As a publication, we choose to maintain certain social media profiles; that makes the Ink’s presence and interactions there our domain and our responsibility. Once, a follower called for a boycott of another’s business based on a comment on our page, the latter of whom asked us to take it down. Was I “censoring” one user by privately asking them to remove their own comment and explaining why that wasn’t appropriate on our page? (They deleted it.)

I think not. Of course, none of this is easy and it can be nearly impossible in a moderator role to know where to draw the line … how to tame those wild geese online, if you will. It’s uncharted territory. Moonshine sets social media guidelines and seeks to remain transparent to its audience. The effort is ongoing and must be revisited often. And we are just one small piece of a puzzle that spans multiple industries and government agencies, here and the world over. To answer this societal brainteaser is going to require creative problem-solving on all of our parts. 

In 1999, David Bowie said the then-fledgling internet would “crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.” Well, we’re being crushed now. If Bowie could imagine the profound impacts of the online world before they swept over us like a cultural hurricane, then we can imagine how to use it wisely.

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