Facebook, the First Amendment and Your Business

Facebook, the First Amendment and Your Business

Facebook and Free Speech

As Editor of my college newspaper, I was shocked when a professor leaned across the table during a faculty senate meeting and screamed at me “And don’t you print any of this in your paper!”

I would have printed every word except this professor held my sister’s career as a nurse in her hand. I made a decision in that moment. In the long term, her career won out over my first amendment rights. I also learned a valuable lesson that day: we have the right to free speech but we aren’t free from the consequences of that speech. (I also learned adults can be bullies.)

No, we can’t be put in jail or be fined or even kicked out of school for saying what we think (with a few exceptions), but we can be shunned by our peers or “blacklisted” for jobs.

Fast forward a few, or more, years, and free speech has taken on a new meaning with social media. Now everyone has access to their very own billboard in the public square. We can say what we want, tell it like it is, express our opinions all day and all night. Many take advantage of the freedom of speech and free platforms available to do just that.

But what happens when your favorite social media platform removes your post or disables your account because your update violated one of their policies or they just didn’t like it? Earlier this week, and many times before, I heard a radio talk show host talking about the violation of free speech when Facebook removed someone’s status update because their team didn’t like it.

As a freedom of speech advocate, I have to say “let’s take a step back.” Most of the social media platforms are publically held companies. Their goal, at the end of the day, is to turn a profit. How they do that is by selling access to their members through advertising to paying businesses. We are their commodity.

What does that have to do with our free speech? Nothing, and that’s exactly the point. If you write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, is that newspaper under an obligation to print every letter they receive? No. Social media sites allow us to create content for them. Because they own the platform, they have every right to determine what actually is published on that platform. Just as a newspaper or magazine has a right to determine what is published in their publication.

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Social media’s popularity has grown because for the most part the platforms have allowed almost anything to be published. Which gives us a sense of great freedom in writing anything we would like to write. It also makes being “censored” more painful because we’ve gotten used to having our very own platforms to make our speech public. The reality is, these platforms aren’t our “homes” and they aren’t publicly owned spaces, we can be asked to leave if the operators don’t like what we are saying.

Most companies we work with stay outside the fray of controversial, censored material. Many don’t even really want to tackle political issues that might even affect their industry. It goes back to the old saying “Don’t talk about money, politics or religion.” However, if your company does find itself on the wrong end of social media censorship, you have a few options for dealing with it.

Contact the social media’s response team. Each social media platform handles these issues differently. For Facebook, you can submit a report here: https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/167646843343666. Some businesses and organizations report having their pages restored while others do not hear from Facebook at all, so it’s a mixed bag.

Write a statement for social media. While your business page may be down, it’s likely your personal page and the personal pages of your employees are still up. You and your employees may be personal friends with many of your top customers and followers. You can ask your followers for help petitioning the social platform to restore your page. You can also post this message in other social platforms even tagging staff at the social site that deleted your page. The best response to this method comes from Social Media Examiner whose page disappeared for almost 48 hours last year.  

Update your contacts via e-mail and your website. Chances are you have some real overlap in the people who follow you on various social sites (like Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn) and those on your e-mail list. By sharing what’s going on, you alert people to the problem (and they might know someone who can help) and you make sure your fans know where you are.

Don’t limit your online presence to one social media site. If your social media followers and engagement dwarfs that of your website, it’s easy to wonder why you need a website in the first place. I would compare it to renting vs owning space, but if you aren’t buying their ads then you aren’t even really renting, you are squatting. Which means you have no investment. Your page, all your contacts and all your content will just be gone. G.O.N.E. Gone. Invest in a website. Collect email addresses from your contacts so you can reach them on your own terms, not just a social media platform’s terms. Build relationships on other social media platforms.

Think before you post. It’s easy to sit behind a computer and write out all the things you want to say. It’s easy to lean back on the first amendment and say it’s our right to say these things. What may be hard is accepting the consequences of our words. If a customer doesn’t agree with your opinion about something or someone, even though you only post about it on your personal profiles, you could lose business. You could also lose friends and tarnish a hard earned reputation for being a good business person. As an individual you could be denied a job because your prospective employer doesn’t want your drama in their office. Sometimes the hardest thing about social media is not saying anything at all.

I’ll leave you just one more nugget of advice (I wish I could take credit for it): Just because we can say something doesn’t mean we should.