We live in trying times. People are losing their jobs over comments they made on Facebook and Twitter is helping start revolutions. Today’s social media channels are not only connecting the world, but they are also a reminder that it is potentially dangerous (and damaging) to just bluntly speak your mind.
The not-so-new danger of expression
Many people believe that the dangers and risks of unfiltered public expression are a new phenomenon because of the internet. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. We shouldn’t forget that in colonial times, you could be tarred and feathered for speaking positively about the tyranny of English rule in America. In another example, wind the clock back 500 years to modern day Italy. With political power struggles happening on a weekly basis, even skilled diplomats like Niccolo Machiavelli weren’t safe.
In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli was issued an arrest warrant in what was then the city state of Florence, Italy. For those of you unfamiliar with this prolific Renaissance author, he authored The Prince, which was an influential work on the nature of statehood. Machiavelli was being arrested because he worked as a diplomat for the ruling regime that was overthrown.
His arrest warrant (recently discovered by researchers from England) listed him as a most wanted man where the public was warned that if you interfered with their search for him, you would be punished. Thus, the phrase “If you are not informed, you will not be excused” was translated from it.
500 years ago, speaking your views and openly taking positions was punishable by death or torture. Today, that usually won’t be the case if you are living in a developed part of the Western world. However, the age of the internet and social media has resulted in new kinds of dangers that are reminiscent of the time that Machiavelli lived in.
Social media has connected people in such a way that we tend to forget that when we speak on Twitter, we are speaking into a megaphone with lots of other voices. Once in a while, your voice gets heard by the wrong person and it draws excessive attention to you.
Let’s take a look at a few notable examples.
Cases of consequences from social media
Don’t mess with Tom
Have you ever heard of a guy named Polo Tapia () on Twitter? Me neither. This poor chap made the mistake of responding to a Tweet made by Tom Anderson, the guy who started and ran Myspace until he sold it in 2005. Before I go further, I will let you briefly read the exchange below as well as Tom’s rebuff.
Tom certainly didn’t hold back. After @Polotapia’s insulting tweet, Tom fired back by poking fun at how he still made half a billion dollars from Myspace, despite its inevitable demise.
@Polotapia probably didn’t fully consider that this folly could have happened to him, but hindsight is 20/20. He unfortunately had to suffer mass humiliation at the hands of a very rich and successful person (Tom).
The major lesson from this example is that just because we are behind a keyboard doesn’t mean that there can’t be consequences. In this case, it was merely a jab at someone's success.
After doing a little more digging, here’s what I found about @Polotapia’s post-Tom Twitter exchange:
- This conversation is still getting retweets
- People are still commenting on this
- @Polotapia has since made his account private
I’m not an expert, but one has to assume that his online experience has significantly suffered.
She tweeted against the cartel, they murdered her
Here’s a much more tragic and serious example. Dr. María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio was a Mexican activist and journalist who tweeted alerts and such against the Mexican drug cartels. She went under the alias “Felina” (which Twitter has since deleted because of gruesome images posted at the time of her death by her kidnappers) and her identity was found by the drug cartels. After kidnapping her, they tweeted from her account what her name was and posted a photo of her with on the ground with a gunshot wound in her head. While María was admirably supporting a great cause, she ended up paying the ultimate price with her life.
Note: This write-up about María and her story is really comprehensive.
This example serves as a sober reminder that we need to give serious consideration to what we say online and we cannot trust social networks to preserve our privacy. Whether we choose to accept the dangers or not, our actions still have consequences. Whether it’s public shaming or murder, the struggle is very much real.
Freedom of speech is a constitutional right and is truly the cornerstone of American freedom. I strongly believe that while this freedom should be expressed, we should also express caution and be accountable for how we use that right.
So, what’s your next tweet going to be?