Should social media platforms regulate the content that users post? Should they have to?

Since the early 2000s, the rise of digital platforms to match different parties with complementary interests has emerged, what we now call social media. The rise in the popularity of social media has had major social costs. A new dynamic in the way information is spread has arisen, being increasingly decentralised and emphasis by algorithms to create like-minded groups has created ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ constraining people to a particular way of thinking. It is clear that the promotion of such ideas is problematic. Some contend that the spread of this information is wrong, exploiting the free nature of such platforms to fundamentally misuse free speech and spread criminal activity, and thus advocate that social media should be regulated. Conversely, others argue that the regulation of speech and hence, ideas, go against the basic principles of democracy and intrinsic human development. Greater distinction must be drawn between these two main schools of thought. Some that take the former perspective, believe that the regulation of such information must be done by social media platforms themselves, since they hold the adequate knowledge and power of the platform’s culture and workings. Whilst others believe that regulation should be conducted by the government, being a democratically elected body. On the whole, I will take a more neutral viewpoint. This essay will argue that social media should be regulated, but through using a model of co-regulation between companies and governments. However, a fine line must be struck between advancing free speech and regulating media in the protection of public interests.

The first issue that I would like to tackle is the question of ‘whether social media should be regulated?’.

The greatest downfall of social media can be attributed to the ease in which you can exploit the right of free speech, to spread misinformation[1]. Most, if not all democratically elected countries have mechanisms in place that allow, protect and to a degree encourage free speech. Allowing free speech can be observed Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998[2] and the first Amendment.[3] Protection of free speech can be seen under Article 10 in which this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law”. It is clear that the qualified nature of these laws show that free speech can be deliberately misused and can threaten the basis of our democracy. Therefore, it can be argued that given the size of social media platforms, with Facebook recording 2.8B active users, that social media would be far more effective in spreading misinformed, bigoted and false information. When a sufficient volume of voters are poorly informed, enough voters are more likely to make mistakes when voting, this leads to the election of incompetent, and in some cases corrupt or self-destructing governments. Examples both past and present prove this. A lack of regulated information in all groups corrupts public opinion. In Bangladesh, for example, transparency rose in the late 1980s, and democracy emerged in the 1990s. But then transparency started to fluctuate, never again reaching the levels previously enjoyed or that of most established democracies. The democratic regime eventually descended into chaos in 2007[4]. A modern example of this stands. False information spread during the Trump 2016 election had a distinct slant, with 17 out of the top 20 fraudulent stories being anti-Hillary Clinton. This may help explain the reason for Trump’s unexpected support. What must be noted between these two cases is the time frame. The spread of misinformation has been exacerbated through social media, and the period of 3 months compared to 10 years speaks volumes. This not only supports the point that there is deliberate unregulated misinformation spreading, that directly impacts the quality of democracy, but also illustrates the power that social media has given misinformation, in effect, doing 10 years of work in 3 months. From this perspective, it can certainly be inferred that in the interests of democracy, territorial integrity, health and morals social media should be regulated.

Although, it can be argued that the regulation of social media would have dear consequences, in the short term, reducing the power one has to freely express their opinion and in the long term, slowing intrinsic human advancement. Firstly, the issue of ‘where content regulation stops?’ arises. This question is one that holds merit. Regardless of who regulates social media, would regulation be effective in promoting the expression of personal views and political opinion?. Look no further than China. Under the totalitarian rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the regulation of social media is key in oppressing citizens political views, calls for help and even the publication of news. Censorship guidelines ensure that all content posted on social media ‘must reflect the parties (CCP) will, and safeguard the party’s authority and unity’. With such stringent guidelines, it can plainly be seen that Chinese citizens do not enjoy the freedom of expression that is experienced in the West. With similar policies being implemented in Hong Kong, that choose to heavily regulate content posted, the slope that a country could fall down is exemplified. To summarise, this point draws on the nature of where censorship would stop. In countries where social media censorship is in place, the qualified nature of free speech has been manipulated. It is apparent that the definition of such terms has been used to implement a ‘one-party’ political view, and so, argues that heavy regulation of content posted on social media, is a slippery slope that could lead to the complete abolishment of free speech.

Furthermore, social media should not be regulated in the interests of intrinsic human development. With the censorship of ideas, would we not be taking a major step backwards in terms of human advancement? This point can be elaborated on by looking at the spread of Darwinism. As discussed, with the reach social media has, it can be suggested that social media is arguably the most powerful tool available to humanity in spreading information. Through the censorship of media posted, in the interests of whichever country the social media platform operates in, it is inevitable that ideas that threaten the ‘morals’ and ‘territorial integrity’ of a country would be removed. This is a threat to human progression. By absolutely limiting the spread of ideas, it is questionable as to whether we would make the progression we have made today. In the Darwinian context this can be observed. Darwin’s theory on evolution was hugely unpopular, since it was perceived as contravening Christian principle, and as such, was banned. With the power the government would have over the regulation of social media, would Darwinian theory be able to trickle into society and scientific thought? . The answer is most likely no. Thus, the developments that have been made in ‘evolving’ scientific thought and knowledge of evolution would be unknown. Hence, with the complete and utter regulation of such ideas, it can be inferred scientific theory and so progression, would not be as advanced as it would be today, from a myopic viewpoint this would impact the effectiveness of modern-day medicine, from a wider view, the extent of natural human progression.

Establishing that a fine line must be drawn between regulation and over-regulation, the second question I would like to tackle is ‘whether social media websites should regulate their own content’.

As creators of their algorithms, advertising efforts and user experience, some contend that social media websites should ‘self-regulate’ rather than having external body regulate the content user’s post. Through a company self-regulating, they would pre-empt or supplement already existing governmental guidelines. This would mean that they would not be completely ‘free’ of state control. There are two main arguments that advocate for self-regulation, the first (as mentioned) is that social media websites created the resources, and so, have the best knowledge on how to implement regulation, the second argument is that historically self-regulation has been far more effective than any other forms of media regulation.

Addressing the former point, social media websites have the most knowledge of the culture and workings of their platforms. This is very important. Understanding the workings of the online community it has created, means that necessary protection and removal of content can be done in the most effective, least risk averse and most importantly least controversial manor. Undergoing changes according to these would most likely result in fewer instances of ‘strong reactions’, see the ‘queer and sex-positive communities that felt threatened and erased’[5] following Tumblr’s ban on adult content. As such, it can be seen that social media websites have the best understanding of manipulating algorithms, censoring posts and most importantly carrying out content removal in the best way possible, hence, justifying that they should have the power to remove their own content. Additionally, self-regulation is historically the most effective form of content regulation. Seen in the 50-60s, allowing companies to take a ‘pro-active’ response, in line with government guidelines led to major benefits. More effective systems were put in place and a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation was avoided. Hence, in order to maintain effective and trustful regulation, social media websites should be able to regulate their own content

On the other hand, this approach is highly questionable. Whilst similarities can be drawn between the past and present, overlapping themes in relation to size and influence cannot. Films may have brought about ‘worsened behaviour’[6] but this is nothing in comparison to the incited Capitol Hill uprisings on the 6th of January 2021. Social media self-regulation could be effective, although, it can be argued that a significant amount of power would be legitimately given by the state to un-democratically elected bodies. Even though external governmental bodies would have a lower understanding of a social media platforms’ culture and practices, without a regulatory body imposing and monitoring a legally binding duty of care, social media platforms would still be able to act in a manner that sacrifices the well-being of their consumers for growth. A similar view is taken in Germany with the NetzDG, Germany has argued that without legislation, social media companies will not take their responsibilities seriously. This is a much more realistic perspective. With a multiplicity of reports that illustrate the degree to which social media firms are willing to sacrifice the health of consumers by not removing posts. It is not unreasonable to be highly distrustful of giving major power to already powerful industry leaders.

To conclude, I believe that regulation of content posted on social media is required largely as a result of its size and its power. Although, a necessary balance must be struck between advancing free speech and intrinsic human development alongside protecting public interests such as national security and social harmony. However, safe guards and mechanisms must be implemented to prevent governments and social media sites alike from adopting a culture of a ‘one-party’ viewpoint being spread, similar to the case in China or North Korea. In relation to who should regulate content posted, I believe a new paradigm of ‘co-regulation’ should be used. In this, Governments and social media companies would work together for public interests to regulate content posted on social media platforms. This should be done by firstly, interpreting content posted on social media platforms, using completely inclusive mechanisms, secondly, establishing a system of public accountability for social media sites over the content posted on their platforms and thirdly, making mutual, measurable commitments to public goals, that would hold both parties accountable.

[1] This point specifically addresses misinformation – this is information that doesn’t have the intent to harm. [2] “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers” [3] “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” [4] [5] [6] This was an argument put forward during the 50s that advocated for media regulation.

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