Social Media: at the Intersection of Freedom of Speech and Risk

If you believe the attack on the US Capitol this week was called in by President Trump, then we have absolutely arrived at this critical intersection. But is the issue freedom of speech exactly, or is it freedom of HIDDEN speech?

In monitoring social media dialogue for the last 13 years, we noticed a precipitous drop in civility once users of social media were able to hide their content from the public behind privacy settings. We wholeheartedly agree that people have the right to voice their opinions and feelings under the 1st amendment, but they should be forced to do it publicly instead of in privacy-protected hotbeds of opinion outside the purview of public discourse and law enforcement.

Privacy-protected discussion online, sanctioned by social media venues such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Parler allow bad actors to radicalize one another, recruit new actors, and coordinate an action plan easily and without consequence. Because of privacy protections they are also protected from law enforcement until there is a public act of terrorism, leaving law enforcement scrambling to react.

The difference between offline “secrecy” and online privacy protection is this:  People can meet in secret offline, however they are limited by time and space – for instance, a secret meeting of more than 100 people is going to be noticed simply because it is large and visible. A secret offline meeting cannot last more than a few hours due to attendee fatigue and time limits on the space used for the meeting. Online privacy allows this same secret meeting to take place in perpetuity with more than 50,000 people in a completely hidden environment. The difference in risk is obvious.

The insurance industry needs to get involved in the discussion about privacy settings in social media while the full consequence of private conversation is in the public eye. The benefit of seeing the full discussion online is that insured property owners will also be able to see if their investments are at risk, and they can take action to prevent damage. Insured employers can identify risk much earlier in the discourse of their employees, preventing employment and injury claims before they happen.

As we have seen in the last several years, the direction of the conversation online has not become enlightened as predicted by the owners of social media venues. Requiring private conversations to be help publicly will allow the regulatory bodies that exist offline (insurance, law enforcement, public opinion) to interact in the same way with online content as with offline content, enforcing their own rules of behavior and hopefully putting the correct level of pressure on bad actors to reform.

The ability to see and monitor all social media content is the key to avoiding preventable risk. The time to act is now.