Free speech, protest movements and your ‘Friends’ list

Tristan Lawson

Staff Writer

Campus protests, marches and acts of civil disobedience like the ones happening now at universities and colleges across the country have not been seen since the 60s. A lot of things have changed since then, while other things seem to be stuck in the same spot. The demographic of our country, the Internet, smartphones and the nature of the media has changed… a lot. Every aspect of our lives is up for debate with the click of a button, and freedom of speech has gone from a soapbox to a worldwide audience. The next Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez or Eleanor Roosevelt could be on your Friends list right now… or, you might have blocked them already.

This country seems to be more polarized than ever, and so are the American people. There is a lot of discussion about how easily people are offended, and how every issue seems to invoke strong feelings as well as strong anger towards anyone who opposes our views. There have been many examples in the news lately of people lashing out at others for doing exactly what they are trying to do themselves: exercise their First Amendment right – the right to free speech.

Millennials are masters of technology and of using social media platforms to enrich their lives. It is easier than ever to engage with people from around the world on many issues. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are quickly becoming the chosen format for young people to get news and information. But there are some striking differences between your dad’s newspaper and your favorite newsfeed.

There are pages, independent groups and social media personalities sharing news and opinion on every issue you can imagine. Many of these are large news organizations and independent journalists trying to enter into a new arena of journalism and provide interesting and informative stories and news to keep you in the loop, while others are misinformed or just unethical people with an alternative agenda… and sometimes they are just people who just enjoy “stirring the pot.” All of these are protected as free speech.

But the great thing about Facebook and Twitter is, if you don’t “like it,” you can just “block it.” We all do it, and we all “like” and “share” the things we “like” and agree with… that is kind of the point, right?

The only problem with this is that we are only engaging in one side of the debate. With some media outlets becoming increasingly biased and polarized, and web-based news outlets fighting over “click-bait,” it means you are really only getting one side of the story – the side you agree with.

Whether we want to hear it or not, free speech means all speech, and alternative opinions and points of view are essential to the democratic process. A healthy society must be able to settle differences with conversation and reason instead of violence and intimidation in order to survive and prosper. Many of us are immune to the negative side effects of this one-sided overload of information, while others are extremely vulnerable.

But the “media” has played a part in their perception by Millennials. Many people have commented and observed how the media can “spin” the narrative of an extremely complex event or subject to fit nicely into a 1-hour show with 15 minutes of advertising. We saw examples of this during the Occupy movement, the protests in Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement; many in these movements and their supporters complain of misrepresentation by the media.

All of this has led to a shift of attention away from large news organizations with a responsibility to report the news and which also carry the burden of accountability, to small “fringe” news organizations, with less than reputable credentials and no accountability.

However, millennials should keep in mind that politicians, police, universities and local governments are also struggling to maintain their composure under the microscope of social media. Many of these “fringe” news organizations are doing important work and taking risks to hold authorities accountable in a way that the mainstream media cannot and never has before.

College students and young activists should also remember that the success of a movement is reflected in the polls, not a 15-minute news segment. So far in the last decade we have seen the first black president, the first Latina Supreme Court justice, marriage equality for LGBT Americans and Facebook going public on the New York Stock exchange. Who knows what will happen next? You might read about it first on your newsfeed… or maybe not, if you’ve already blocked it.