Why Facebook ‘likes’ won’t be a ‘vital’ part of free speech any time soon

Facebook Like

Facebook Like

Facebook recently argued in court that the “Like” feature is an integral part of free speech. A lawyer for the company argued that “Likes” are “vital” to the 500m people who use Facebook every day and that they should be protected by the US Constitution.

“Any suggestion that such communication has less than full constitutional protection would result in chilling the very valued means for communication the Internet has made possible,” Aaron Panner, Facebook Inc. (FB)’s lawyer said.

The court ruling states that “likes” do not amount to a “substantive statement” where “substantive” can mean “real” or “independent in existence or function.” Many have said that “liking” something on Facebook is similar to putting up a sign on your lawn endorsing a particular point of view — this is protected by free speech in the US. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a brief which cites examples like re-tweeting, signing a petition, and donating to a campaign online as examples of media that are created by “one-click” that are similar to Facebook’s “like” that are protected by free speech. It is thought that if the ruling is upheld, these forms of expression will be under threat too.

But what is the societal value of a “like”? Unicef recently undermined a lot of social media campaigns by announcing that “Likes don’t save lives.” Its campaign centred on the fact that it has 175 000 likes, but these won’t do anything for a homeless child and his brother who may be susceptible to disease.

Unicef Facebook Campaign

One of the highlights of our so-called “armchair activism” has got to be the Kony2012 campaign which compelled users to spread the word about the LRA warlord in order for him to be captured. At the time of publication, he’s in Sudan with the rest of his army — despite extensive “liking” of campaign content against him.

Personally, when I think of the “like”, free speech proponent names like Napoleon, Rushdie, Kierkegaard, Voltaire and George Washington don’t come to mind. The globe generates roughly 3-billion likes a day, and yet we still have world hunger, Robert Mugabe still rules Zimbabwe with an iron fist, and those pesky hardware companies haven’t given me my iPad for “liking” their photos. This is because a “like” isn’t a substantive statement; sure it’s a light endorsement by a Facebook account holder of something, but that isn’t tantamount to change.

People also “like” many different things: from a promotion by a corporation of a product, to the delicious lasagne my wife made for supper last night — these varying pieces of content all hold different levels of sentiment that fall outside of the normal Freedom of Speech gambit. That’s the current problem with Facebook: it’s so new and so vast, that we don’t know the actual real life effect of that “Like.”

Whereas, in real life, we know that a leaked dossier ala Wikileaks can change the course of a presidential term or cause a man to seek asylum in a country that is willing to harbour him. We need to look beyond the simple “like” mechanism and start reporting on what actual change a social media campaign on Facebook has generated. AquaOnline’s “Swing for Good” campaign for Coca Cola, has successfully provided grass for a soccer field based on user’s “likes” and sharing of the campaign message — if we have more campaigns like this then, perhaps, we can start taking “likes” a bit more seriously.



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