A Retweet Can Send You to Jail, A Like is Free Speech

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So here's two strange stories from opposite sides of the world.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Facebook likes are constitutionally-protected free speech. This came out of a lawsuit by 6 employees of a Sheriff's office in Virginia who were fired for liking the Facebook page of his election opponent. They filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, which ended up being partly determined by the question of whether or not a Facebook Like counted as free speech. The judge said no, but this week's ruling reverses it. Courts are sometimes slow on internet stuff, but their thinking here sounds mostly right: 

On the most basic level, clicking on the “like” button literally causes to be published the statement that the User “likes” something, which is itself a substantive statement. In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.

Meanwhile, in China, a judicial interpretation issued earlier this month said that anyone responsible for spreading so-called "online rumors" could be jailed for up to three years. You could only get in trouble, however, if your post was retweeted 500 times or viewed by 5,000 people. This week, the first arrest under the new rules was made. Here's Quartz on the story:

The death occurred on Sep. 12, according to the Beijing Times, in Zhangjiachuan, a sleepy, hill-country backwater with a population of 320,000. Passersby discovered a local man on the sidewalk in front of a karaoke bar suffering from head wounds apparently incurred from a fall. He died before the police reached the scene. Though the local authorities have since ruled the death accidental, there’s some question as to what exactly happened. According to the police, the dead man’s relatives spread rumors that he’d been beaten to death first and then thrown from a window.

On Sep. 14, the paper’s report continues, the 16-year-old suspect, whose surname is Yang, posted messages to Weibo saying, “After the 9/12 Zhangjiachuan murder case happened, the police didn’t act. Worse, they quarreled with the crowds and even beat up the relatives of the deceased.” He also posted that the “police forcibly detained the deceased’s family members, and clashed with the masses” and that “The legal representative of Diamond International KTV [the scene of the death] is Su Jian, the vice president of the Zhangjiachuan County People’s Court.”

The Quartz story establishes that the suspect did get some superficial aspects of the story wrong, but this law clearly seems more designed to punish anti-government speech than it does to create a rumor-free internet. Particularly since his tweets don't seem have been retweeted 500 times. 

Part of the enjoyment of using any social media service is that you can decide what any function means. A Like can be a straightforward endorsement, or not. Liking a post where someone says that their loved one is sick is probably an act of condolence, rather than a sign that you approve of that disease. And similarly, a retweet can be informational, or promotional, or even biting. The actions on these sites mean what we agree they mean. It'll be interesting, as we go forward, to watch the courts grapple with all this noise with varying levels of grace.