In the years before the Internet, engaging in public debate and discussion required time and effort. One might print books or pamphlets, post flyers, speak into a bullhorn, or speak at some public forum. Each of these decisions, barring specific measures to preserve anonymity, carried certain risks of consequence–including, in many cases, prosecution, imprisonment, or execution. “We must all hang together,” Ben Franklin famously quipped at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The advent of the Internet, and particularly social networks, has made public speech exponentially faster and more accessible. To enter public debate today requires only a web browser and a few taps at a keyboard or smartphone screen. Perhaps because of the speed and ease with which we can now communicate, many who choose to enter the public dialog fail to consider the potential consequences for their actions–but those consequences remain, and they can be severe.
When Justine Sacco, a PR exec with less than 200 followers, tweeted a racist HIV joke before a flight to Africa, she probably didn’t consider that she would rise to top the Trending Topics and ultimately lose her job. Online activist Suey Park seemed unprepared for the backlash against her #CancelColbert tweet, and the originator of the #YesAllWomen hashtag was so traumatized by the abuse she received that she now chooses anonymity.
I have argued before, in the wake of the “Twitter Block Scandal,” that choosing to use social media, and Twitter in particular, is a choice to be a public figure. In a post this week on Medium, Anil Dash presents a different view, arguing that modern concepts of “public” and “private” are antiquated and unsuited for the digital age, that social network users are exploited by the media and technology industries for profit, and that legislators and policy-makers are complicit in this exploitation. Continue Reading