Yes, they should. Here’s why!
Say what you will, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world without social media. What’s more? Social media platforms, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, know that. They use their popularity to their advantage, often putting national security and users at risk.
In early October 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed Facebook for choosing “profits over people”. She revealed hundreds of internal documents showing how Facebook hid reports that disclosed the social media platform’s harmful effects on users. It isn’t the first time Facebook has come under fire for putting its users’ privacy and safety at risk (read: Cambridge Analytica).
Incidents like these have ignited the debate on whether it’s time for social media to be regulated by governments and other authorities. Most countries and activists say aye.
What Is The Social Media Regulation Debate?
Will the freedom to be safe from misinformation and fake news trump freedom of speech? Find out:
In favor of regulation
It is well known that social media can spread misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories. That’s what urges people to push for its regulation. A Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Alexandra Geese noted in a joint statement, “In a democracy, we cannot tolerate an internet where some people have the right to promote violence and hatred in spite of the rules, and others see perfectly legal content taken down by automated filters. We need to regulate the whole system and the business model that favors disinformation and violence over factual content—and enables its rapid dissemination.”
What’s even more concerning is that disinformation is often spread by those in power, as we saw during the Capitol attacks in the U.S. on January 6, 2021 and the congressional hearing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2018. During the latter, while Congress Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sought answers on Facebook’s lax policies around fake news and user privacy, Zuckerberg claimed he didn’t know anything. He did, however, confidently declare: “lying is bad”. Perhaps this display of ignorance is what urged his company’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to support regulation. She declared, “We don’t think it’s a question of whether regulation, we think it’s a question of the right regulation.”
While many people recognize the benefits of regulation, others are concerned about the flip side:
What about our freedom of speech?
With social media, people have the power to share their thoughts in an unfiltered manner. Regulating content might stand in the way of that goal. People might not feel like they can express themselves freely. However, according to the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie, that might be for the best. He said, “In most Western democracies, you do have the freedom of speech. But freedom of speech is not an entitlement to reach. You are free to say what you want, within the confines of hate speech, [defamation] and so on. But you are not entitled to have your voice artificially amplified by technology.”
He added that social media platforms are not “neutral environments”. Some voices gain more prominence than others, leading to the spread of misinformation that can be damaging.
What would regulation mean for startups?
Companies regularly use social media to market their products and services to their target audience. Social media is an indispensable marketing tool. The lack of regulation can actually hurt your business, as it allows people to freely leave fake reviews and revelations.
For instance, consumers nearly boycotted McDonald’s after fake news went viral that the brand was using ground worm filler in its burgers. Many people, without cross-checking, accepted the fake news as fact, which hurt the fast food giant’s business. Regulation would urge social media companies to fact-check content like this before publishing it. It would add friction to the posting process, urging people to think twice before posting fake and unverified news.
As per a report, regulating social media would also limit the use of micro-targeting ad messages to users.
In a joint statement with Geese, MEP Christel Schaldemose said, “Today, there are arbitrary protections of celebrities and a huge focus on negative, wrong and conflict-ridden content that threaten to undermine the very democratic conversation that we once hoped the social media platforms could strengthen.” In order to still have those conversations safely, she feels that governments must put “firm demands to the companies governing these spaces.”
Australia, the U.K. and Germany already have laws in place to deter social media platforms from misusing their power. These regulations complement those that companies have in place for themselves.
It’s obvious that social media platforms demand regulation. Still, there is a long way to go before we can achieve that effectively. Wylie concludes, “I think it’s ridiculous that there’s more safety consideration for creating a toaster in someone’s kitchen, than for platforms that have had such a manifest impact on our public health response and democratic institutions.” Indeed, that’s something to chew over.
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