Freedom of speech is also the right not to amplify an idiot

My social streams are burning glowing red with passionate debates on “freedom of speech”. These debates are often linked to a couple of powerful social networks (finally) kicking that bitter and angry man in the White House off their platforms. Mind: they gave it a lot of thought before suspending his accounts. Trump could permit himself way more than citizen lambda ever could. He got ample warning from both networks that he was over the line. By a mile.

But if you are  pro or contra Trump is not really the subject here. It’s the “freedom of speech” that gets used and abused like there is no tomorrow that triggered me. Honestly, for some of you: it does not mean what you think it means 😉.

It’s a  human right

Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice“.  (thank you Wikipedia).

ICCPR specifies that  the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities and can therefore be subject to certain restrictions when necessary for respect of the rights or reputation of others or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals“.

Luckily, there are boundaries

Freedom of speech and expression is, as you might have understood by now, by no means absolute. Common limitations or boundaries to freedom of speech apply, and relate to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, food labeling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, dignity, the right to be forgotten, public security, protection of minors, negation-ism and perjury.

Mill’s Harm principle

Justifications and an ethical framework for these boundaries include the harm principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  Otherwise said: like most freedom, the freedom of speech stop where another freedom begins.  

It’s the law

In most countries freedom of speech is included in the constitution itself, or in one of the amendments or bylaws. The first amendment of the United States Constitution notoriously says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In short, this gives every single US citizen five protected  freedoms: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government.

So the ones that plead for freedom of speech, but condemn the right to assemble and (peacefully) protest should really do some research 😊.

In most countries, this right to freedom of speech has boundaries that follow mostly the exceptions of the ICCPR.

It’s for the government, and its institutions

The freedom of speech refrains governments, governmental institutions, and governmental agents from interfering with expression, as long as it is within the legal boundaries (= the list of exceptions), and refrains them to retaliate in any way on the communicators. Ergo: a citizen has the (human) (constitutional) right to express himself, within certain well defined boundaries, without having to fear pressure or negative impact from the government for doing so.

China jailing people for talking about the events of the Tian’anmen Square is clearly a breach of the human right to free speech…

Private terms and conditions

All this is very well, but every social media platform has a binder of small lettered terms and conditions that set out the multiple rules linked with the use of the platforms. Often, (and in the case of as well Twitter as Facebook), these terms and conditions set limits to the freedom of expression on those platforms, that are directly taken from the ICCPR list of exceptions.

You do not have to like the platform, you may vehemently disagree with its purpose, its shareholders, its set-up. You may even question its grueling impact on today’s society. But nobody forces you to use it. And… if you do, you’ll have to accept the limits as set out in its terms and conditions (assuming that those are not against the law) .

Freedom of speech does not give you a right to be amplified

Within certain boundaries, you can say whatever you want, but this constitutional  and human right does not oblige third parties to amplify you. Press, platforms, etc are free to amplify what they want. You might not like that, but it is their right. In short: no private company can be forced to spread your gospel. Moreover, if you would force them, you would be jeopardizing their very own right to freedom of speech.

So yes, Twitter and Facebook have every right not to amplify an idiot. Maybe they should have exercised the right not to carry stupid, racist, misogynist, and violent messages way earlier.

Trump’s Muslim ban: Brands in the heat of the argument: you have values, or you don’t.

It’s an easy exercise. Most brands went through it. You nudge a couple of C-level people in a room, you carefully mix it with a matured blend of external consultants with great corporate hair, and you end the day with GCV’s. Great Corporate Values. Things like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘empowerment’, ‘diversity’, ‘respect’, etc.  You know the lot. They are hanging in your meeting rooms. They ornate your hallways. They are part of your carefully groomed ‘culture’.  They are the backbone of the manifesto you live by.

Martin Luther King Room

Or do they? It’s easy to chisel a couple of power words in the soft stone in your reception area, or to name your main meeting room “Martin Luther King”. But what do you do, as a brand, when the shit hits the fan? What do you do when the very values you so carefully stand for are openly attacked? Do you play ball? Do you wait till it’s over? Do you aim for Swiss neutrality?

The elephant and the mouse

Ethicists point out that not choosing sides in a situation where values are under attack is impossible. Not standing up to the attack on values is not neutral, it is a conscious choice not to defend that very value. Ergo: not neutral, but siding with the value-oppressor.  Desmond Tutu stated it as follows: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

US brands diving in the deep

The impact of Donald Trump’s decision to ban Muslims from a selected list of countries from entering the United States hits so close to the core values of some brands, that they choose not to stand on the side-line.  Facebook, Twitter, Square, Tesla, Google, Starbucks, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, HP, Intel, Lyft, AirBnB and countless other brands have sided very openly against the resolution. Google going as far as to put 4 million dollar aside for this crisis.  AirBnB giving free nights to refugees.


Starbucks on the barricades

Starbucks went as far as announcing it will hire 10.000 refugees, stating that the very core of its daily business is carried by immigrated baristas and associates, and that diversity is too much of a value not to take a stand. Starbucks’ CEO Schultz wrote:  “I write to you today with deep concern, a heavy heart and a resolute promise. We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question.


While the united taxi unions agreed to a pick-up stop at JFK, to protest against the ban, Uber decided to continue its service. This resulted in a nationwide boycott of Uber (#deleteuber) people massively deleting their Uber application and their Uber account, and opting for Lyft that openly and quickly sided against Trump’s decision, and donated over a million dollar to ACLU, to defend the constitutional rights.

values delete uber

No free values

There is not such a thing as a free value. Defending a value, or refusing to stand by that value both can cost you a lot of business, and will be the source of a lot of heat. In Europe, there is still an unwritten list of brands that choose the ‘wrong’ side in a war more than 70 years ago…

So, how important are your values? What is your line in the sand? What is the position that will show your integrity, will make your people and clients stay by your side?  Do your people adher to your values? What if not? HR  adviser David Maister’s stance is a firm one: “We treat our values as nonnegotiable minimum standards. If a person does not, or cannot, get into compliance with our values, we will help them find alternative employment.”

Did your crisis preparedness manuals prepare you for this? Are your social channels ready to carry your messages, defend against dis-formation? Are you ready?

airbnb values

Trump’s inconvenient truth: Rule the social sentiment, rule the world

We’ve all seen the polls. On Brexit. On Trump. We quoted them, they were on our TV screens. They were headlines in our most thorough news channels. And they were all dead wrong. Europe woke up earlier this year with a burning headache, and a cornerstone of the EU that voted to go solo again. The USA that had prepared itself for the first female president, saw the keys of the nuclear codes being handed over to Donald Trump.

Hinssen versus Fortune

Short-attention spanned Serial Technologist Peter Hinssen was immediately heard with his catchy one liner “big data, big fail, big time”.  Fortune magazine countered that view by pointing out that the prediction disaster was not a failure of data after all, but that it was -as always-  a human error: a complete failure of correct forecasting and analysis. “The data was as good as it could be, but the analysis of it lacked depth. If anything, the forecasters’ spectacular and almost unanimous collective failure to see Trump’s win coming provides an opening for a more productive conversation between numbers and words, statisticians and analysts, data and message” stated Fortune. Fortune magazine did not provide however an answer on how those statisticians, analysts and reputed journalists all drew similar wrong conclusions out of the same “unflawed” datasets. Beats me. I’m with Peter on this one.

Trump versus Clinton

Sentiment was right

Clinton was the undisputed champion to win the Election throughout the entire campaign. The polls showed it. But, if you look closely at other datasets, another story was told all along. For most of 2016, Trump had a clear advantage over Clinton in both social engagements and positive sentiment. Marketing analytics and data firm 4C Insights 4 –who successfully predicted Brexit earlier this year based on social sentiment- showed how Trump stayed ahead even in the last month of the campaign with well over 57 million total engagements (versus 47 for Clinton). What’s more: Trump showed a clear 10 percent (48 versus 58) lead in sentiment. Enough positive sentiment to floor Hillary Clinton with a technical KO on Election Day.

Trump versus Clinton

King of Google, King of Twitter, King of Facebook, president of the USA

While Trump was publicly criticized for his trigger-happy and nightly use of Social Media, often in a very controversial way, it created mentions and news. His tweets became conversation starters, flashing up in on- and offline media, creating a relentless carpet-bombing of views and sentiment. His Facebook Live interventions, his consequent use of Facebook to spread his views, his addressing those issues that Americans actively search for, and his Twitter warlock strategy got him very visible and talked-about. His followers flocked around their leader on social media. I was accosted myself multiple times by Trump followers when I expressed concern on some of Donald Trump’s views on my personal social media channels. This shows how his strategy converted some followers in a hidden loyal social army.

Trump, the Obama of 2016

Just before the election Phil Ross, Socialbakers’ principal analyst pointed out on  DMN’s One-on-One Podcast, how social media was a clear win for Donald Trump, and how he won the “short and sassy” communication war with Hillary on social media on almost every single engagement.  Phil Ross stated on his blog on august 18th:

“(Social Media) trends seems to be failing Clinton. Instead of concentrating her resources on areas where she can deliver an emotional message immediately, via longer text and imagery, her most frequent activity is to post policy links on a platform Trump dominates anyway. No matter what causes each spike in activity and engagement for either campaign, one thing is clear: the social media advantage that famously helped power President Obama’s electoral victories now appears to be on Trump’s side.

It’s not about fact, it’s about emotion

Most of Donald Trump’s statements are controversial, at the least. Fact checkers could not type fast enough to show the inaccuracies, inconsistencies, errors and straight-out lies in Trump’s reasoning. Clinton was on the ball every time to point those out. The hard lesson learned is that in a war on sentiment, facts driven strategies do not matter. You cannot beat emotion with fact in a 140 character statement.

As every outlaw in the wild wild west knew already a century ago: if you bring a (fact driven) knife to a (emotional) gunfight, you are going to bite the dust.

I wish you a social media strategy for 2017, that has the right, balanced focus on building emotional connections.

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