Thesis #20

Facebook is not really a public space. Nor is it Speaker’s Corner

Come Internet users seem to think that Facebook and other social media (for example Twitter) are like London’s Speakers’ Corner — a space in London’s Hyde Park where open-air public speaking, debate and discussion are allowed and where speakers may talk on any subject, as long as the police consider their speeches lawful.

Superficially, social media platforms may seem to be like that. But they’re not. They are POPS – Privately-Owned Public Spaces. The owners have the power to decide what is and is not allowed, and their algorithms determine which kinds of speech gets disseminated. Revelations about the role of Facebook and Google in the 2016 US Presidential election are shocking partly because they show how the companies didn’t use these powers, and instead allowed their platforms to be ‘gamed’ by political actors. So instead of imagining Facebook to be an online Speakers’ Corner, think of it as a shopping mall with lazy and incompetent security guards.

POPS are not just an online phenomenon btw. They are also proliferating in cities worldwide. And — contrary to what the more naive users of social media imagine — people can be held legally liable for what they post on POPS. Just ask Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, who retweeted incautiously and paid the price.

Further reading

Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city, Penguin, 2012. Amazon UK:

George Parker, “How private ‘public’ space in cities shuts out protest”, Financial Times, 7 April, 2017.

Joshua Rozenberg, “Sally Bercow learns the social media rules the hard way in McAlpine case”, Guardian, 25 May, 2013.

Back to list