Law in Contemporary Society

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Social Media’s Effect on Attitudes Toward Free Speech on College Campuses

-- By TyCarleton - 30 May 2017

There is a burgeoning trend in the belief systems of otherwise liberal college students that countenances the abrogation of free speech when it is perceived as undermining notions of equality for minorities. The predominant precipitant of this shift is the advent of social media.

Today’s college students have experienced the entirety of their politically aware lives in a world where various social media platforms serve as primary sources of news. In 2016, 62% of American adults received news from social media.(1) Forty-four percent got news from Facebook, up 14% since 2013.(2) In 2013, only 23% of American adults read print newspapers on a given day, down 18% since 2002.(3) This shift in the way we access news media has fostered illiberal attitudes toward free speech among college students in two primary ways: first, by facilitating political in-group isolation, and second, by furthering a desire for sanitized and protected spaces.

In-Group Isolation and Confirmation Bias

The functionalities of many popular social media platforms promote political homogeny and interfere with the free exchange of ideas online. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm ensures that users are primarily shown content that reaffirms their preexisting beliefs. The news items any given user is shown are selected in reference to, among other variables, how often that user has read other news stories of a similar political valence, how long they looked at such stories, and whether their friends already read or liked the content. As the algorithms improve, the content each user is shown approaches a pure manifestation of his or her idiosyncratic views. News stories or editorials that might challenge the views of or offend the user are filtered out. The balkanization of the news industry has worsened the problem. Social media sites are increasingly likely to refer users to niche, tailored content rather than established, respected sources that host a broader array of editorial viewpoints.

Additionally, implicit within the idea of social media is the ability to craft one’s own networks of association. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? users can easily curate the selection of accounts they follow to supply them with content that harmonizes with their preexisting beliefs. Twenty-six percent of Facebook users have “blocked” or “defriended” someone because they disagreed with something political that person posted.(4) These behaviors have the effect of creating insular in-groups with homogenous political ideologies.(5)

Today’s students, raised in these digital echo chambers, enter college with a marked dearth of exposure to opposing viewpoints. Suddenly faced with an institutional structure predicated on the free exchange of ideas, many undergraduates feel personally threatened by controversial visiting speakers or the views of their classmates. These students lack the practiced resilience required to thrive in environments (which colleges and universities usually are and should continue to be) where no idea is categorically off-limits and opinions are meritorious insofar as they are defensible. Having grown accustomed to the facility of excluding unwanted opinions online, some implore their colleges to assume this function and disinvite or exclude controversial speakers from campus.

The Desire for Safe Spaces

Vitriol dominates online discourse, generating an appetite for safe spaces. The (quasi-)anonymity of many social media sites has divorced certain forms of violent and hateful speech from their natural social consequences. Absent the traditional reputational risks, people regularly write offensive things online they would never dare to say in public. As a result, the online spaces that function as platforms for conversation or debate are almost always rife with coarse language, ad hominem attacks, and a patent lack of listening and learning. Those who wander out of their curated in-group networks face an unprecedented miasma of threatening language. Since so much of interpersonal interaction now takes place via social media, many young people have discounted the very possibility of productive and respectful discourse and debate. Some students crave the idea of a curated, anodized campus experience, seeing it as the only viable alternative to the vulgarity of the digital Wild West.

Others are genuinely frightened and look to college administrations to function as effective authoritarian protectors. Many perceive the Trump campaign’s explicitly bigoted rhetoric to have elicited an increase in hate crimes across the country.(6) The connection between violent speech and violent action burns bright in the minds of vulnerable Americans. It is a basic human instinct to respond to fear by seeking immediate solace, without regard to long-term consequences. Students who might nominally support free speech are defensively seeking its selective suspension on campuses, without regard for the broader impact this might have on the free exchange of ideas or further polarization of politics. The sensible distinction between free speech and violent behaviors thereby inspired is easily lost on students whom, with internet comment boards as their model, have lost faith in the possibility of redeeming public discourse.

Concluding Thoughts

This trend toward censorship on campuses is unlikely to self-correct. Social media is here to stay, and popular platforms will persist in supporting the demand for political insulation. If students continue to develop the troubling perspective that it is acceptable for an institution to serve as the gatekeeper to intellectual legitimacy, we may face a generation of citizens comfortable with greater governmental restrictions on speech.


1 : Gottfried, Jeffrey, and Elisa Shearer. "News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016." Pew Research Center's Journalism Project. Pew Research Center, 26 May 2016. Web. 15 May 2017.

2 : Ibid.

3 : Heimlich, Russell. "Number of Americans Who Read Print Newspapers Continues Decline." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 May 2017.

4 : Mitchell, Amy, Jeffrey Gottfried, Jocelyn Kiley, and Katerina Eva Matsa. "Political Polarization & Media Habits." Pew Research Center's Journalism Project. Pew Research Center, 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 May 2017.

5 : Quattrociocchi, Walter and Scala, Antonio and Sunstein, Cass R., Echo Chambers on Facebook (June 13, 2016).

6 : Smith, Grant, and Daniel Trotta. "U.S. hate crimes up 20 percent in 2016 fueled by election campaign-report." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 15 May 2017.

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