It has been reported that Instagram has created a tool which allows some users, including pop star Taylor Swift to delete negative comments about their posts in bulk, instantaneously. Is this the beginning of the end for free speech?
The mystery of the missing snakes
Taylor Swift has been in the news recently: her public feud with rapper Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian West (detailed here) has generated a high volume of negative comments on her Instagram feed. Soon people commenting on her Instagram posts started to notice their posts disappearing almost instantly.
All of the deleted comments were negative. Many included a snake emoji which symbolised dissatisfaction at Swift’s role in the feud. It’s important to remember that any individual can already manually delete comments from their Instagram posts. But this new tool appears to allow people like Swift to bulk delete, rather than having to sift through hundreds of thousands of comments to individually delete negative ones.
What does this have to do with human rights?
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects freedom of expression, which includes expressing our views to others even if they are upsetting or offensive. There are limits – you can’t, for example, incite people to hatred. That’s a criminal offence. But censoring offensive or unpopular views goes against the grain of the right to free speech.
Among the controversy it is important to remember that social media – particularly Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – have hugely opened up opportunities to express opinions and ideas. Anyone with an account can tweet an opinion or post a political statement, and they can do so directly to the people they want to reach: their friend, their favourite celebrity, or their local MP – this would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Users are free to comment on most posts, tweets, or pictures, even if the comment is not complimentary.
Getting the right balance between protecting people and preserving free speech on social media is especially tricky. Along with the rise of social media came trolls, who deliberately upset people online using inflammatory and abusive comments.
There is some protection from the UK’s criminal law, for example grossly offensive online communications in some cases can be a criminal offence, however the offence is difficult to prove and fraught with free speech issues. Even with stalking and race hatred laws, it is impossible for the police to monitor the whole of social media, let alone enforce standards of behaviour. It is important to protect people from abuse online, but also important to ensure that freedom of expression is not unduly suppressed.
How do we strike the balance?
With the rise of trolls, the online community has made efforts to stand against hateful conduct. Recently Twitter permanently banned one user, Milo Yiannopoulos, from using the platform because he incited online abuse of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. This sparked a great deal of controversy because of its implications for free expression.
During the Brexit debate, Facebook was accused of influencing support for the Leave campaign through directing traffic from their website to the Vote Leave Campaign website. The allegation was denied, but this raised an important issue about the power of social media platforms to shape public opinion, even if through algorithms rather than explicit decisions.
The reality though is that Facebook, which owns Instagram, is a private corporation, so it is not directly subject to human rights laws which generally apply between the individual and the State. And at this stage, it is hard to tell what the impact would be if Taylor Swift has been given the ability to shape her online image by deleting hundreds of thousands of critical comments, according to what she views as ‘critical’. But it is doubtful that the people who made the comments will simply ‘shake it off’.
Learn more about the importance of free expression here. Read about balancing freedom of expression and preserving safety and order with this case study. Check out the relationship between business and human rights here and learn how laws and non-binding responsibilities affect businesses here.