Tweet yourself out of a job
SA’S influential social media users discuss online responsibility and whether or not freedom of speech truly exists in the digital age.
real freedom of speech is an idea, but it’s an idea worth striving for. I always say that you only know you’re free if you can speak your mind; if you can say what you think without fear of being censored, imprisoned or attacked. Free expression also entails the right to hear things without someone filtering what they think is appropriate for you to hear, and deciding like a big brother what you should and shouldn’t be exposed to. In SA, we claim to be a free society, and that free expression is enshrined in our constitution, because none of the other rights can come into play without it.
I think we’re all beholden to someone, whether it’s our audience, clients, family or friends. But as much as you have the right to say anything you like, you also have the right to be stupid. I’ve said many stupid things, but I think that makes me human. Nevertheless, you still have to be very careful that you don’t engage in hate speech, racism, sexism and homophobia (among others) because that will get you into serious, and sometimes legal, trouble. Other than that, everything else must be considered in the context of the platform and audience it was directed at. If you’re going to say something contentious, you need to be willing to bear the consequences – good or bad. When I was fired from Idols SA by M-net in 2016 for my tweet, “People don’t understand free speech at all,” I had to go to court to clear my name and be reinstated on the show. The whole thing could have been avoided if they hadn’t overreacted to a noise on Twitter that was a coordinated plan by a handful of people to twist what had been said into something more sinister.
A witch hunt on social media can also ruin lives. The mob that calls for that kind of action don’t really care about the result – they just want to feel powerful. Outrage and seeking attention aren’t a good reason to get someone fired from their job for saying something stupid online, it will only discourage people from being honest. If there was a due process and an appeal to reason we might be able to have a more positive dialogue and change opinions for the better, rather than driving dangerous ideas underground. — GARETH CLIFF, entrepreneur and radio personality
I’m thankful that we live in one of the most liberal countries on earth at the moment. Go online and you’ll see people discuss and dissect everything. If you think about it, we have very few untouchable topics. And it’s all because we live in one of the most dynamic democracies. In so many countries, people aren’t free to air their own views.
When we talk about freedom of speech online, I think we need to look at it holistically, as something that has as many liberties as it does limits. You have the right to express your political and personal views, but even the constitution recognises boundaries to this freedom. People can’t use their right to free speech to advocate hate or violence. In the online space, when someone talks about freedom of speech, they’re mostly referring to how we speak to and about each other online. That has to include a broader conversation around defamation, libel and slander. Yes, you can say what you like about anyone and anything but, in the legal sphere, there are always consequences.
We live in a world defined by power relations. The rich are generally more powerful than the poor. Men are generally more powerful than women. Social media allows a levelling of those power relations to some extent. Look at cases like Roseanne Barr, Penny Sparrow or Vicki Momberg: for years, they could hold and express their racist views without consequence. Now, social media has created a space where people on the ‘receiving end’ of those views can push back and say, “That’s not acceptable.”
I know many people criticise the so-called ‘mob mentality’, but I see it as a way of holding people accountable for what they say and do. I’d much rather live in a society where there are citizens who push back and say racism and/or sexism isn’t acceptable here, than live in a society that turns a blind eye to damaging words and actions. — JANINE JELLARS, founder of TRUE Content Marketing
Freedom of speech is a right that was fought for by many political parties, civic organisations and individuals to ensure that we’re able to express ourselves. The right to expression is balanced with the need for respect of other people, their beliefs and the responsibility to not spread hate speech based on factors including gender and race. I don’t write bigoted or racist things online, so that’s not really an issue for me, but there are times when I don’t feel free to share my thoughts and I censor myself. I don’t censor because of fear of dismissal, I do it because I realise that my comments may be hurtful to someone reading them, or I may not have the appropriate range to discuss an issue and it’s better to let an expert deal with it.
I think it’s fair for people to be dismissed on grounds of hate speech made on social media accounts. There is no place for bigotry or racism in a country that still has rampant inequality, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. The online space is not your mother’s house, be respectful, be considerate and don’t be racist or homophobic. — NZINGA QUNTA, news anchor
The freedom to free speech is Godgiven to all with functional vocal cords. Unfortunately, vocal cords don’t come standard with common sense and a bullshit filter. A dumb few don’t realise that we live in a society of different cultures and creeds. Those people feel ‘free’ to blurt out their politically incorrect views and don’t realise that being politically correct isn’t about being cowardly, neither is it a form of censorship of one’s views, but rather a means to living in a world with different people of different views, nationalities and beliefs. Nobody wants to be force-fed another’s beliefs, so keep it to yourself. Yes, on my own page, where people choose to follow me, I can and will share my opinions. And no, I don’t feel that it’s fair for people to be dismissed based on comments made on their personal social media accounts, because nobody forces you to follow and read their thoughts. — TREVOR GUMBI, comedian
We’ve all got the right to freedom of speech, but to think that’s free of consequences is naïve. In a world where you’re only ever a thoughtless tweet away from getting fired, it’s important to know the law around freedom of expression. Many assume they’re free to trash talk their company or say contentious things in ‘private’, but they’re not. South African labour law’s good-faith principle states employee conduct should never damage the company’s reputation and, if your statement is seen by just one person who can link you to your employer, then it’s deemed public. Thus, writing, “My stupid boss is a poop face,” on your Facebook wall, could see you collecting UIF. Personally, as an influencer who is known for being outspoken, I know all too well that words carry weight, and I’m constantly walking a fine line between speaking my truth and not turning my life into a flaming garbage fire. For me, getting it right comes down to assessing the potential cost before I speak. Sure, there are beauty brands that won’t work with me because I’m not afraid to call out pseudoscience. But, as I value the trust of my readers over a lifetime supply of badly-formulated eye cream, it’s a hill I’m happy to die on. Ultimately, we can all flex what our constitution calls ‘freedom of expression’, but we must realise certain words come with a price tag that will vary in terms of context. Unemployed Una in Boksburg can get away with spouting controversial opinions on humanitarian issues. Anyone being paid to be SA’S sweetheart cannot. — LEIGH VAN DEN BERG, beauty blogger
Freedom of speech exists as an ideal, however, we all know that what we say can greatly impact our lives as well as the lives of others. This can be both good and bad, but I think there is value in being able to express yourself freely, keeping in mind that there will be implications if you abuse that ability. Freedom of thought exists but freedom of speech, especially in a social-media driven context, definitely has some form of censorship. Lately, I try to think before I tweet, especially if it’s in response to identity politics and news. I don’t believe in being afraid to express something you truly feel as long as it’s not ignorant or hateful. As a 25-year-old woman of colour in SA, the personal will always be political and people who choose to conduct business with me know that I tend to tell it like is – it’s something my parents and their parents couldn’t do. Revolutions aren’t created through silence. What I won’t do though is ‘bash’ people or companies without actual facts, with those sorts of things, one has to be quite objective.
In light of the fact that hate speech exists, I definitely do think comments made on social media are grounds for dismissal. Adam Catzavelos and Penny Sparrow come to mind when I say this. Both Adam and Penny got heavily penalised by the public, the companies they work for and members of the law because of the racist comments they made online. Views of a racist, homophobic or sexist nature aren’t tolerated by law, so expressing them on a pubic domain like social media is just as bad as saying it in an interview. — PALESA KGASANE, digital content creator
I don’t think freedom of speech is really going to prevail. We live in a society where we bully people online to agree with our opinions. No one is really open to discuss anything if the majority don’t agree with them. Recently, a magazine had Nomzamo Mbatha on the cover stating she was an activist. It became a heated and unnecessary debate. As much as we feel entitled to our opinion, it should actually be just that – our opinion. I feel the only time this should be null and void is when it comes to discrimination and abuse. Anything that undermines us as a society shouldn’t be allowed a platform to spread.
Whether fair or not, when employed by a company, if you sign a contract that states you must represent them in a good light, then you should be held liable for what you say. Imagine tweeting about being racist and your job requires you to be fair in all aspects, how is it certain that you’re being fair to everyone? We carry so much hate behind the keyboard, you’d swear it paid to shove your opinion down someone’s server. — FARAH FORTUNE, businesswoman