Expressing Discontent Online: Freedom of Speech or Damaging for Society?

Social media offer an important opportunity for ordinary citizens to express their viewpoints on pressing societal issues, such as the refugee crisis. Recently, a moral discussion on the appropriateness of these expressions emerged. On the one hand, people’s interpretations were regarded as discriminating and overly hostile. On the other hand, people plied for the freedom of speech: Citizens should be free to express their discontent on social media. But how harmful are the populist voices of discontented citizens?

Populism is all around us. It entails the perceived opposition between the ordinary people as “good” and others, such as immigrants or politicians as “evil”. People use this mindset to interpret social and political reality all the time, and social media provide them with a platform to share these sentiments. A Facebook post in July 2015, posted in the midst of Greece’s EU-related conflict illustrates people’s populist interpretations: “The people should rather spend the billions going to Greece in national healthcare”. A day after this fifteen words counting message was posted on the Facebook community Help our health care, over 6000 people liked it. Moreover, 343 people replied to it, mostly by emphasizing how the EU, the national government and the Greek people are corrupt, culprit, and most of all, blocking the goals of the ordinary hard-working citizens. Populism is thus highly popular.

The populist frame of mind expressed online clearly reflects distrust in politics and disdain of others. Just like the Greek people, asylum seekers are frequently accused of their own fate. The government, in turn, is accused of providing help to these others while they are not deserving it: The money should be invested in our own people.

But how dangerous are people’s hostile constructions of others on Facebook? As populism and genocide share some crucial psychological underpinnings, one could argue that populism is an intermediate step in the process of purification and destruction. An alternative, more optimistic interpretation is that online communities provide ordinary people with a safe space to express their discontent without consequences. Expressing viewpoints in a populist way may cleanse their mind from frustration. Moreover, people gain the positive experience of belonging to an imagined community of discontented citizens, which may restrain them from acting upon their frustration.

An important practical implication of the discussion on the appropriateness of populist online expressions concerns the question if laws should restrict people to be hostile on social media. According to the first article of the Dutch constitution, discrimination is prohibited. People who post messages in which they write that immigrants are rats, dogs or flies that need to be killed or people who respond to the refugee crisis by arguing that “they” are retarded and should not be allowed to enter “our” country are thus in conflict with the constitution. As people are not communicating these messages anonymously, they can be tracked down and punished.

Against this backdrop, the best way to deal with online populism may be to allow citizens to express their discontent on social media as long as they do so without being disrespectful to other people. Hence, citizens are free to be against the principle of immigration, but they cross a legal line when the individual immigrants are constructed as evil.

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