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August 28, 2014

Free Speech, Anonymity and Social Silos

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Two significant tech news stories caught my attention this week that may not seem connected at first glance, but speak volumes about the affects of social media and messaging in society.

The first story is Apple’s shelving of the anonymous Secret application from their AppStore in Brazil in accordance with a local court ruling. The Brazilian constitution strictly prohibits free speech when it’s made anonymously. Like Secret users around the world, Brazilians were using the app to express themselves on a wide range of topics that violated the country’s laws.

As if coordinated with developments in Brazil, a very interesting study of online behavior was released this week. Apparently, instead of increasing conversation, social media seems to be stifling the exchange of ideas according to the Pew Research Center.

The report studied behavior of 1,801 American adults and their reactions to Edward Snowden’s controversial revelations in 2013 concerning widespread US government surveillance. Researchers concluded that social media encouraged individuals to suppress their own views if they believe they differ from those of family, friends and work colleagues. Even more astonishingly, people carried over this self-suppression into real life!

You are probably wondering how I see these two stories as related. An unfortunate result of the formation of personal online communities is the uniformity of opinion in which people surround themselves. I’m not implying that it is worse then before, actually, I believe that it is better. However, if you look at Facebook, for example, this limited exposure happens as a result of a. the ability to filter posts to like minded individuals/block posts from others and b. the News Feed algorithm. Since you are more likely to “Like” posts from consentient friends, you will eventually only be fed posts to your stream from those people. As a result, your News Feed evolves into a silo of identical opinions and articles.

This “silo of opinion” occasionally takes on a new form of bullying. Divergent viewpoints are shot down by the majority, sending a clear message to those involved that aberration won’t be accepted within a social circle. Subsequently, people begin to keep their opinions to themselves, as demonstrated by the study cited above.

So where do users go if they want to voice unpopular opinions? Enter the world of anonymous messaging and networking.

There’s no doubt that much of Secret’s success can be attributed to the fact that people want to be able to say what they want without facing repercussions from friends or general society. The market has simply reacted to the demand for anonymity.

True, people can be hurtful and ignorant when social pressure is lifted, but we can’t and shouldn’t try to control the thoughts or opinions of others. Censorship, be it through federal legislation or social pressure is never the answer. Besides which, I give tech savvy Brazilians about a week before figuring out another way to air their opinions anonymously.