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Social Media and the Fraught Question of Regulation


“But, with that said, many of the problems that are blamed on social media run much deeper and require broader societal solutions than just legal controls on social media.”

In February of 2011, former President Barack Obama hosted a dinner with American technology executives at the White House. Lauded as the first American president to “get” that the Internet could be a tool for social progress and democratic engagement, President Obama maintained a close relationship with Silicon Valley and held generally positive views about the emergence of social media. The biggest issues surrounding social media, according to the early Obama administration, concerned net neutrality and broadband access (i.e. how to make the Internet and social media more open and accessible to all).

Back then, it was hard to argue otherwise. The Web 2.0, which included Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, was viewed as a means by which people could connect with distant friends and acquaintances. Users could also interact live with society at-large, while bringing the tools of content creation and information to one’s fingertips. All of this was welcomed in a liberal, democratic society.

These tools were seen as means to empower the people, to give a voice to the unheard masses, and to achieve popular organization and democratization across the world. In 2009, after a controversial election in Iran that saw the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, opposition members used social media to organize and maintain the largest protests in the Islamic Republic since the Revolution of 1979. Two years later, social media activity acted as a catalyst for the Arab Spring protests that called for greater democracy in long-standing autocratic states in the Middle East. That same year, it was key to propelling the Occupy movement.

However, this rosy view of social media proved to be short-lived. There was an increased awareness of the harmful effects of social media on the individual psyche. It would also be used by al-Qaeda as a communications and recruitment tool, a role later perfected by the Islamic State, which used it effectively while creating its modern terrorist state. In 2016, it featured prominently in the United States presidential election; foreign and domestic actors were accused of manipulating social media feeds for political gain, a complaint that has since been made about numerous other elections across the world.

Previously-optimistic voices for social media first became wary and then eventually critical. They cited their abuse and subversion from chiefly democratic tools to useful mechanisms for digital authoritarians, most notably for societal control in China and propaganda in Russia: a threat to democratic institutions, rather than an opportunity for connectivity and freedom.

Criticism of Social Media

In the United States, social media usage and criticism have both been mounting for over a decade. More than half of Americans get some of their news from social media, and about one-quarter do so “often.” Concurrently, almost two-thirds of Americans say social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today, and almost three-quarters think that social media sites censor political viewpoints. There is criticism lobbied at Big Tech and social media from across the political spectrum, from the Left, Right, and center.

Politicos from both sides of the aisle have joined these voices. During last year’s Democratic primaries, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders called for restricting and regulating social media to combat “misinformation.” Candidates Andrew Yang, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and then-candidate Joe Biden went a step further and called for reforming or revoking Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which grants legal immunity to web publishers for third-party content in their platforms. Even former President Barack Obama, who notably paved the way in Washington, D.C. for the modern technology industry, is now one of its most vocal critics, calling the information architecture that surrounds it the “single biggest threat to our democracy.”

In September of 2020, Republicans in Congress unveiled a proposed reform to Section 230 that would limit the amount of leeway technology companies have when it comes to content on their platforms, including looking to address selective moderation of certain political content. Also in 2020, then-President Donald Trump stated via Executive Order 13925 that by selectively flagging and filtering content on their platforms, companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are acting like content creators rather than a public square for ideas. In turn, President Trump threatened to veto the yearly National Defense Authorization Act if it did not include a provision repealing Section 230.

As seems to be clear, people across the political spectrum appear to have a bone to pick with social media. Although few agree on which specific point to focus on, the most frequent targets are Section 230 and the monopolistic size of the major Big Tech companies.

Inevitable Changes

In December of 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden engaged in a question and answer session with the editorial board of The New York Times about a wide range of topics concerning his potential future administration. After traditional policy questions were out of the way, the interviewer inquired about the candidate’s views on Facebook, given recent advertisements that accused him of corrupt dealings in Ukraine while Vice President.

Almost immediately, it became clear that the candidate was not, and has “never been a fan” of Facebook. He also suggested that the technology giants’ concentration of power, lack of privacy, and exemption from lawsuits were all concerning. He then called for revoking Section 230 and advocated for opening Facebook (and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg) to civil liability, while also increasing government regulation for the industry.

These proposals, of course, rest on the assumption that the problems with social media can be resolved by government action, instead of their potentially being inherent to the modern Internet.

Given the bipartisan consensus on the need for reform and accountability, it is likely that President Biden will put forth at least some reforms for Section 230, draft plans to supersede it legally, or seek to circumvent its limitations through executive orders. Outright revoking Section 230 would arguably result in Big Tech giants, such as Facebook or Twitter, being unable to operate as they currently do. It would also likely result in a much more moderated public forum, lest these companies open themselves up to potential lawsuits. Given the integral nature of technology companies to the modern American economy (and their lobbying efforts in the capital), it is unlikely, however, that Section 230 will be fully repealed.

A more likely approach from the Biden administration is to rein in Big Tech (and social media) by attacking their monopoly power in the industry, as described in a 2020 report by the House Judiciary Committee. This entails greater antitrust enforcement, oversight by the Federal Trade Commission, and even the break-up of the major technology players into smaller spinoffs. Despite the notable gridlock in Washington, a Democratic trifecta in Congress and the White House—as well as recent events—will likely result in some type of social media reform in the near future.

After the storming of the Capitol on January 6th (and the subsequent social media fallout and crack down on certain types of content), there has been an increase in self-policing action from Big Tech, outrage from both Republicans and Democrats, and even international condemnation of the arguably heavy-handed reaction of technology companies to the events. All of this potentially suggests increasing public support for regulatory actions. These proposals, of course, rest on the assumption that the problems with social media can be resolved by government action, instead of their potentially being inherent to the modern Internet.

The Power of Social Media

If there is one common argument that both supporters and detractors of social media agree upon, it is that social media has an outsized influence on the fabric of society. Social media empowers many, acting as a voice for the unheard, such as the oft-censored Venezuelan opposition. It allows for popular organizing and for grassroots movements to spread like wildfire, such as what took place with the George Floyd protests. And it enables citizens and journalists to chronicle and expose incidents of crime, abuse, and corruption.

It also gives tools, though, for the powerful to further their reach: the late Hugo Chávez was a fervent Twitter user. It provides a place where members of hate groups can congregate, and it offers the means to push its users towards fringe political positions. It is a key factor in the ever-growing political polarization across the globe, often fueling echo chambers rather than offering forums for the true exchange of ideas. It is the predominant breeding ground for fake news, and it is used by autocracies as 21st century propaganda tools for the masses.

Just like the printing press, the postal system, the telegraph, and the telephone, social media is a tool for individuals to communicate with each other, to share information, and to improve their lives. It is another technological layer in society that allows for greater, almost instant interconnectivity, as long as one has an Internet connection. And like anything else, it allows for the best—and the worst—of society to take advantage of it.

There needs to be certain regulation of social media. Many platforms are deliberately designed to be addictive and, thus, harmful—over time—to users prone to addiction. The ever-growing monopoly of Big Tech hampers innovation and prohibits newcomers from entering the market. Most Americans believe that social media companies hold too much political power. However, at the same time, many problems blamed on social media are the result of larger societal trends, only amplified by new technologies. Political polarization in the United States had been on the rise for many decades before social media. Osama bin Laden used videotapes to broadcast his message to his followers and to the world. Furthermore, traditional media has been accused of both bias and undue censorship for just about as long as it has existed.

Given the size and power of the Big Tech companies, regulation and increased enforcement are necessary to protect free competition, civil rights, and personal freedoms. But, with that said, many of the problems that are blamed on social media run much deeper and require broader societal solutions than just legal controls on social media. As such, regulation might solve some of the problems that manifest on social media, but others are more inherent to our times and, thus, cannot be quickly remedied by more closely policing Big Tech.

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

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