Social media regulation is not a new discussion topic, but the latest events in the US have made it topical. Questions are being raised on how and when social media services should moderate content and suspend users. The discussion includes several complex issues, such as limiting freedom of speech, the service’s freedom to choose its users, responsibility for illegal content and should the services be regulated as a platform or a publisher.
Traditional media has a history of being controlled by individuals generating money via subscriptions or ads money or dictators. In free countries, media companies try to find audiences ready to pay for content or are a good audience for advertisers. It’s all about monetization. Some of them go after large mainstream audiences, but many also look for niche audiences, even fanatic groups, if they can monetize that audience. In totalitarian countries, it is often the people in power who control the media and its content. We can just look at Russia and how almost all media have come under Putin’s control during his presidency.
New media has always been a challenging area for governments and legislators. When Guttenberg introduced the printing technology, it started an era when it was free to publish books, and many small publishers emerged. Some believe this helped Martin Luther with his Reformation. Then governments began to regulate publishing and made publishers responsible for the content they published.
Later many newspapers were founded specifically to spread the political views of the publishers. The owners of newspapers and TV channels have had significant power in many societies. Rupert Murdoch is a good example. He has supported politicians to gain control in Australia, the UK, and the USA and got some leaders to lose their positions. One can ask if he (or other media moguls) have really planned this, or simply sensed the rising and fading political trends.
Given this, we could say the discussion about the position and power of social media is nothing new in media history. We should also remember that there has been hate speech and agitation long before social media. Look at Europe in the 1930s, several dictators were doing precisely that and were able to create authoritarian governments and wars.
Of course, social media has introduced new factors, particularly enabling individuals to directly address many other people. The platforms are also global and have hundreds of millions of users. They are not regulated like publications, where the publisher and its editor-in-chief are responsible for all published content.
With many significant social media services in the USA, its regulation and legislation are especially relevant, such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230). This 1996 law has recently been in the headlines where political influence on social media and mostly President Trump’s tweets and postings have raised concerns. The law doesn’t force platforms to moderate their content, and if they moderate it, it doesn’t force them to moderate systematically or consistently across all users’ content. On social media platforms, the users are responsible for content and speech they publish in their jurisdiction.
Another discussion topic is whether the platforms have the right to suspend users. The common view among legal experts is that they have this right, and can choose or ban their users. Social media platforms are not utilities or public places where everyone automatically has the right to utilize. In this way, social media companies have a lot of power, but so have traditional media companies.
When people are responsible for content and speeches, it raises questions about legality. When a democratically elected leader starts to deny the election results and encourages people to attack democratic institutions to stay in power, it is not only dangerous but probably illegal. Sadly, we can find many similar examples in history.
Social media has been the main channel for Trump to amplify his claims and falsehoods. The same has also happened through some newspapers and TV channels, so it hasn’t only been social media. Politicians have always wanted to find avenues to talk to citizens directly. One can claim Twitter or Facebook should have acted earlier, but in reality, it is not so simple to suspend the president of the USA from a service.
We are not likely to see clarity on the legal position of social media platforms for some time. Social media is still quite a new phenomenon in our society, people are still learning to use it, and governments and legislators are also trying to learn how to live with it. The main question is if social media platforms will be regulated as publications in the future. There is now increasing political pressure to do so.
In practice, it is very challenging to monitor and moderate all social media content. Facebook has thousands of people employed to do this, but over time more AI solutions will emerge. This will make monitoring more effective and also assist in closing billions of fake profiles annually. Even moderation of this kind has generated conspiracy theories on how this is used to censor political views. But we have conspiracy theories everywhere. People who want to believe in simple solutions for complex problems like to believe in them.
The current social media platforms are very centralized. People also use closed and private discussion forums for the same purposes. And there are also platforms and new concepts that are much more distributed. For example, each user has their data and content on their own platform and only makes it visible to other users through different channels. It is hard to say, if and when these will become mainstream. Still, it illustrates that we shouldn’t concentrate on one mature and stable model, because social media is developing continuously, making it harder to regulate. When Google, Apple and Amazon started to ban it, the most recent Parler case brings a new layer to this discussion; one platform controlling another platform.
When social media platforms can be used as a tool for potential dictators to gain power, the existing dictators don’t like that. In most totalitarian countries, there are restrictions on operating and using independent social media services or owned by governments, directly or indirectly. Social media platforms have also been essential channels for people to organize themselves against authoritarian governments, most recently in Belarus.
The problem is that discussions about social media and on social media are often polarized. Should everyone should have the right to say anything? Should regulation should cover all potential issues? If a social media platform moderates or bans individuals, some say it acted too late, and some say it limits freedom of speech or uses political power.
It is better to accept that we don’t yet have a perfect solution to regulate and operate social media platforms. Like many new things, we must go step by step and try to learn all the time. It was likely the best decision to suspend Trump’s accounts; the platforms recognized their responsibility in the current situation. A fair and free society is based not only on laws and regulation but also on each party’s responsibility.
We all can also influence this development. We don’t need to take all different opinions as an offensive; we can try to understand different points of view, we can respect other people and opinions, check facts, or not believe and share all posts. Most importantly, we must remember that freedom and responsibility come together and if we have no self-control, we get will some regulation, sooner or later.