Social Media and the Fraught Query of Regulation

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“Even so, many of the problems blamed on social media are much deeper and require broader societal solutions than just legal controls on social media.”

IIn February 2011, former President Barack Obama hosted a dinner with American technology managers in the White House. President Obama was lauded as the first American president to “understand” that the Internet could be an instrument for social progress and democratic engagement. He had close ties with Silicon Valley and was generally positive about the emergence of social media. The biggest problems related to social media, according to the early Obama administration, were net neutrality and broadband access (i.e., how to make the internet and social media more open and accessible to all).

At that time it was difficult to argue otherwise. Web 2.0, which included Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, was seen as a means by which people could connect with distant friends and acquaintances. Users can also interact live with society at large while having the tools to create content and information at hand. All of this was welcomed in a liberal, democratic society.

These instruments were seen as a means of empowering people, giving a voice to the unheard masses and achieving global organization and democratization. Following a controversial election in Iran that resulted in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being re-elected, opposition members used social media in 2009 to organize and sustain the largest protests in the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. Two years later, social media acted as a catalyst for the Arab Spring protests, which called for greater democracy in long-standing autocratic states in the Middle East. In the same year, it was key to moving the Occupy movement forward.

That rosy view of social media turned out to be short-lived, however. Awareness of the harmful effects of social media on the individual psyche was increased. It would also be used by al-Qaeda as a communication and recruiting tool, a role later perfected by the Islamic State, which used it effectively in creating its modern terrorist state. In 2016, it played a prominent role in the US presidential election. Foreign and domestic actors were accused of manipulating social media feeds for political gain, a complaint that has since been filed through numerous other elections around the world.

Previously optimistic voices for social media turned cautious at first and then critical. They pointed to their abuse and shift from mainly democratic instruments to useful mechanisms for digital authoritarianists, especially for social control in China and propaganda in Russia: a threat to democratic institutions and no chance for connectivity and freedom.

Criticism of social media

Social media use and criticism have been growing in the United States for over a decade. More than half of Americans get some of their messages from social media, and about a quarter do it “often”. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of Americans say that social media has a largely negative impact on the situation in the country today, and nearly three-quarters believe that social media websites censor political views. Big tech and social media are being criticized from across the political spectrum, left, right and center.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle have joined these voices. During last year’s Democratic primary, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders called for social media restrictions and regulation to combat “misinformation”. Candidates Andrew Yang, Congressman Tulsi Gabbard, and then-candidate Joe Biden went a step further and called for the reform or repeal of Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gives web publishers legal immunity for third-party content on their platforms. Even former President Barack Obama, who paved the way for the modern technology industry in Washington, DC, is one of the most vocal critics today, describing the information architecture that surrounds it as “the greatest threat to our democracy”.

In September 2020, Republicans in Congress unveiled a reform proposal to Section 230 that would limit tech companies’ leeway over content on their platforms, including attempting to address the selective moderation of certain political content. Also in 2020, the then President Donald Trump declared by Executive Order 13925 that companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, by selectively marking and filtering content on their platforms, act more like content creators than like a public space for ideas. In turn, President Trump threatened to veto the annual National Defense Approval Bill if it did not contain a provision to repeal Section 230.

It seems clear that people across the political spectrum have something to do with social media. While few agree on what specific point to focus on, the most common targets are Section 230 and the monopoly size of the big big tech companies.

Inevitable changes

In December 2020, then-nominee Joe Biden attended a question-and-answer session with the New York Times editorial team on a variety of topics affecting his potential future administration. After traditional political questions were out of the way, the interviewer asked about the candidate’s views on Facebook, amid recent ads accusing him as vice president of corrupt trade in Ukraine.

Almost immediately it became clear that the candidate wasn’t and was “never a fan” of Facebook. He also suggested that the technology giants’ concentration of power, lack of privacy, and exemption from lawsuits were issues. He then called for Section 230 to be revoked, advocating opening Facebook (and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg) to civil liability while increasing government regulations for the industry.

These proposals are, of course, based on the assumption that the problems with social media can be solved through government action, rather than that they are possibly inherent in the modern internet.

Given the bipartisan consensus on the need for reform and accountability, it is likely that President Biden will come up with at least some reforms to Section 230, devise plans to legally replace it, or seek to circumvent its restrictions through implementing regulations. A complete revocation of Section 230 would arguably mean that big tech giants like Facebook or Twitter can no longer work the way they currently do. This would likely also result in a much more moderated public forum so that these companies don’t open themselves to potential lawsuits. However, given the integral nature of tech companies in the modern American economy (and their lobbying work in the capital), Section 230 is unlikely to be repealed entirely.

A more likely approach by the Biden government is to contain big tech (and social media) by attacking their monopoly power in the industry, as outlined in a 2020 report by the House Judiciary Committee. This includes stronger antitrust enforcement, oversight by the Federal Trade Commission, and even breaking the big tech companies into smaller spin-offs. Despite the remarkable deadlock in Washington, a Democratic trifecta in Congress and the White House, as well as recent events, are likely to lead to some sort of social media reform in the near future.

After the January 6 storm of the Capitol (and subsequent fallout on social media and crackdown on certain types of content), big tech’s self-control has increased, outrage from both Republicans and Democrats, and even international condemnation of the arguably persistent reaction from technology companies to the events. All of this may indicate that public support for regulatory action is increasing. These proposals are, of course, based on the assumption that the problems with social media can be solved through government action, rather than that they are possibly inherent in the modern internet.

The power of social media

If there is one common argument that both proponents and critics of social media agree on, it is that social media has an overwhelming impact on the fabric of society. Social media enables many to act as a voice for the unheard, such as the often censored Venezuelan opposition. It enables popular organization and grassroots movements to spread like wildfire, as happened during the George Floyd protests. And it enables citizens and journalists to record and uncover incidents of crime, abuse and corruption.

However, there are also tools that the powerful can use to increase their reach: the late Hugo Chávez was an avid Twitter user. It provides a place for members of hate groups to congregate, and it offers an opportunity to push its users to political fringe positions. It is a key factor in the ever-increasing political polarization around the world, which often fuels echo chambers instead of offering forums for real exchanges of views. It is the predominant breeding ground for fake news and is used by autocracies as a 21st century propaganda tool for the masses.

Just like the print shop, the postal system, the telegraph, and the phone, social media is a tool for individuals to communicate with one another, share information, and improve their lives. It’s another layer of technology in society that enables greater, almost instantaneous, interconnectivity as long as there is an internet connection. And like everything else, it enables the best – and the worst – of society to benefit from it.

There needs to be some regulation of social media. Many platforms are purposely designed to be addicting and therefore harmful to addictive users over time. Big Tech’s steadily growing monopoly hinders innovation and prevents newcomers from entering the market. Most Americans believe that social media companies have too much political power. At the same time, many of the problems attributed to social media are the result of larger societal trends that are only amplified by new technology. Political polarization in the United States had increased for many decades before social media. Osama bin Laden used video tapes to get his message across to his followers and the world. In addition, traditional media has been charged with bias and inappropriate censorship for almost as long as it has existed.

With the size and power of big tech companies, regulation and enforcement are needed to protect free competition, civil rights and personal freedoms. Even so, many of the problems blamed on social media are much deeper and require broader societal solutions than just legal controls on social media. As such, regulation could solve some of the problems manifested on social media, but others are more inherent in our time and therefore cannot be fixed any faster through closer monitoring of big tech.

Adam J. Nott Borges is a Venezuelan-American writer based in Miami.

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