Scott Greenfield picked up on an interesting dilemma we’re in with social media controlling the flow of our news and information. Commenting on new rules being laid down in the Reddit community following its CEO Ellen Pau being ousted by community demand, Greenfield shared:

…[T]here remains an amorphous sense that the internet is out of control and rules are needed, even though the expression of rules is almost impossible to state without resort to vagaries that come down to what the powers that be like or don’t like. Most of us agree there is bad stuff in there, but what is bad defies doctrinal definition. It’s mostly Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity from his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it,” and it’s applied by every individual with a keyboard.

Social media businesses have asserted their right to control what appears on their pages. It may stifle speech, but since there is no right to free speech in somdeone else’s house, it’s their right to shut out any damn thing they please.

As one Reddit community member commenting on the new rules put it:

So speech that you like is fine, speech that you don’t like isn’t. Got it.

At first glance, Facebook and Reddit, with their goal to become the front page of our daily newspaper brought to us be a disparate community of people seem all about free speech.

But what happens when these social networks start deciding what’s good for us and what’s not? Same with Twitter.

What we see could easily be altered without kicking people or subjects off Facebook by just adjusting the algorithms ever so slightly. What if Facebook favors one political candidate or cause more than another?

Scary thoughts when you realize that social networks are becoming the major and, in some cases, the primary news outlets for Americans. Per a Pew Research study earlier this year, 63% of respondents said Facebook serves as a source for news, and an equal number said the same about Twitter.

I’m not one to be spreading thoughts of conspiracy theories. I don’t think social networks are clamping down on free speech. In fact the speech they are enabling and the positions they have taken in favor of free speech are expanding speech.

I do think social media need to take their role as the purveyors of news, insight, comment and opinion seriously. There will be many views — and even people — social media finds offensive. But ought social media shut those views down because the masses demand so? Which town square do the minority head to in order to be heard?

The LexBlog Network is a network of over 1,100 blogs and 8,000 lawyer commentators. In addition to supporting these commentators we curate and disseminate their insight and commentary. Social media at the individual blog level and at the network level.

What if speech is fine on the LexBlog Network except when our community members or we, as the facilitors of the network, don’t like it? We just shut down those who are charged with protecting free speech in our society — lawyers?

You get the point. The limits of free speech may still be defined as “you’ll know it when you see it.” We just have a whole new crew deciding speech in the days of social media.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Viktor Nagornyy