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COLUMN: Freedom of expression extends beyond online platforms

A freedom held dear by Canadians cannot be changed by a Twitter’s policies
FILE - This Oct. 26, 2016 file photo shows a Twitter sign outside of the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. A new study published Thursday, March 8, 2018, in the journal Science shows that false information on the social media network travels six times faster than the truth and reaches far more people. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu), File

When Elon Musk began talking about his buyout of the social media platform Twitter, he repeatedly stated that free speech was the motivating factor behind his decision.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said about his decision to acquire the social media platform.

The purchase price is US$44 billion, or around $56.7 billion in Canadian funds. This is no chump change, even for Musk, the world’s richest man. Anyone willing to spend this much money on a social media platform must see a value in making the investment.

However, Musk has said his motivation is not the investment but rather ensuring people have an online space where they can speak freely.

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“Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have the, both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” he said in April, 2022.

His claims about the importance of Twitter may be overstated. While it is a big player in the world of social media, Twitter is by no means the world’s largest platform. Based on the number of monthly active users, it is in 17th place worldwide, far behind Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and others.

More importantly, acquiring Twitter and changing policies on that platform will not alter free speech in Canada, or in any other country.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signed into law 40 years ago, in 1982, identifies freedom of expression as one of Canada’s fundamental freedoms. This is one of the freedoms listed under Section 2 of the charter. The other freedoms in this section are freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of the press and other media communication, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Canadians have the right to their opinions, even if those opinions are unpopular. And Canadians have the right to voice their opinions.

Canada has had free speech long before Twitter began in 2006, and free speech in this country does not depend on the policies of any social media platform. If all social media platforms were to disappear tomorrow, Canadians would still have the right to freedom of expression.

People would still be free to speak out at public meetings, to write letters to the editor, to publish or broadcast their views or to talk with others about their opinions. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will not affect our freedom of expression in Canada, no matter what changes he makes to Twitter’s rules, restrictions and community standards.

READ ALSO: COLUMN: The freedom to make one’s voice heard

At the same time, it is important to recognize that the freedom of expression we enjoy in Canada is not present everywhere. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are among the countries where freedom of expression either does not exist or is severely limited. The heavy-handed approaches in these countries and others cannot be fixed with a change to the policies of Twitter or any other social media platform.

When Musk speaks about the importance of free speech, his words resonate with many who share this value.

Creating a world where freedom of expression is a universal right is much more complicated than changing the commenting policies on any social media platform.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
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