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Recently somebody asked me, “What makes you American?” This question, although relatively simple, puzzled me.  I was born in America, yes, but is that all it takes to claim the identity of an American? After reflecting on this question further, I concluded that an essential part of being American is the number of human rights I have guaranteed to me by the constitution. These liberties, which I have grown up with and have often taken for granted, are not taken given so freely in other parts of the world.  As I have been living in Prague for over a month now and have been learning about the communist past of this area, I realize how fortunate I am to have grown up in a country where I had the liberty to speak freely.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

Since the country was founded, Americans have had the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This means that American youths have had the ability to express their beliefs unreservedly through any means of communication. And, as the years have progressed, the most effective means of communication has become social media. Today, social media in the United States is the main vehicle through which citizens can express any thought or concern they may have – even if it’s a negative thought about the government.  When the United States government recently shut down, for example, Americans did not hold back from voicing their opinions on Twitter. Whether they were poking fun at the situation or trying to make sense of it, American citizens capitalized on their freedom to say whatever they pleased.

When the Czech Republic was a communist state, citizens did not have any freedom of speech, especially when it came to speaking negatively about the government. Because youths could not use social media as a platform to post thoughts expressing their opinions about the communist government, they used computer games instead. Many of these computer games had the same basic goal – to kill the communist police before they violently killed you. Although the young citizens in the Czech Republic could not use social media to connect with others and exchange opinions, they still found an outlet for their thoughts using media.

In 1992, after the fall of communism, the Czech Republic finally connected to international networks, giving citizens access to social media as a platform to express their thoughts and beliefs. The new presence of social media and freedom of expression became especially prevalent during the last presidential campaign when many Czech citizens went online and voiced their opinions about the election and specific candidates.  Although Czechs are now congregating on Facebook and other social media sites, Twitter remains an “elite” social network in the Czech Republic. As a result, many of the tweets are full of political biases.

While many countries are moving towards freedom of speech and other liberties on social media sites, some countries are, unfortunately, moving away from it. Recently, Vietnam warranted Decree 72, which limits the content of what Vietnamese citizens can post on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or even personal blogs.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Wesley Fryer

Freedom of speech is an essential component of any successful civilization. Although social media sites are important for many reasons, one of the most important functions of these sites is that they provide a platform for individuals to express themselves in an organized and effective manner. With social media, change becomes easier to achieve, thereby preventing corruption and leading to a healthier civilization and a more highly functioning society. While the Czech Republic has recognized this, and has taken two huge leaps forward as a country, Vietnam has, regrettably, taken a few steps back.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user paz.ca

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