The Beast that Silicon Valley Made
An argument against the independent regulation of Social Media Sites
Social media; one of this age’s greatest advancements. It has created a new digital era, where someone in Liberia and someone in Leipzig can converse and truly learn from each other. It has made it possible for people to lock down in a pandemic. It has revolutionized the act of communication and brought us much closer together as a species. Many sources have stressed these benefits, yet I’m not so convinced.
An apt metaphor for our current situation is the Town Square. The town square used to be the place where people congregated, families socialized, and Political candidates presented themselves to the people. This town square of yesteryear has given way to the digital ‘town square’ of today: the internet. Now this public space where anyone could speak is a private one, and platforms can dictate who can and cannot speak. This raises some important questions. Should everyone speak or should some be blocked from speaking? Should the political sphere be so influenced by private entities? Is it the job of the government or private entities to protect our rights?
This essay will advocate that social media companies should only regulate speech when it falls outside the right to freedom of speech, where the exercise of freedom of speech would infringe another’s rights. This shall be explored via two examples: the need to protect democracies and the need to prevent the spreading of hate. As the new ‘town square’ of the digital age, social media platforms must play by a different set of rules. Social media should be regulated as a utility, and their ability to regulate speech must be subject to government oversight, much as the SEC regulates actions on the Stock Market.
In this essay, social media will be defined as forms of media that allow people to communicate and share information using the internet or mobile phones. Regulation of content will be defined as the control of material that can be viewed.
The Question of Hate
Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world. Yet it hasn’t solved one yet.
Humanity has lived for a long time; for roughly 300,000 years. Yet it has never forgotten a few of its primeval flaws. One of the most impactful of these is hate. We modern humans may think we are so advanced, yet we still exhibit the same flaws as our ancestors. It is this central fact that some would argue means regulation of our words on social media platforms must occur.
It has been professed that social media amplifies hate and allows more people to view it. This opinion seems validated by the fact that Isis Supporters have a greater average number of social media followers than those of the average user. (Berger & Hartman, 2015). Furthermore, Neo-Nazi accounts had more than a 600% increase in followers from 2012 to 2016. Neo-Nazi accounts outperformed ISIS in every social metric, including follower counts and tweets per day. (Berger, 2016). However, the most impactful and heart-wrenching argument that proponents of regulation raise is the influence social media platforms play and have played in mass shootings
America has witnessed multiple mass shootings in recent years: 783 people have died, and 1234 people injured in US mass shootings since 1999. (Hartman & Canipe, MARCH 23, 2021). The shooting of 20 children and 6 adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting committed by Adam Lanza on December 14, 2012 serves as a chilling example of a shooter being seemingly influenced by social media. Adam Lanza was a resident of Sandy Hook. He lived with his mother five miles away from the elementary school. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome aged 12, Adam had a history of troubles in and out of school.
Long before the shooting, Lanza cut off most of his contact with the outside world. One of his only contacts with the outside world was his computer, on which he played video games such as World of Warcraft. He ‘descended into a world where his only communication with the outside world was with members of a cyber-community; a small community of individuals that shared his dark and obsessive interest in mass murder.’ (The Office of the Child Advocate: The State of Conneticut, 2014). It has been theorized that this contact with this community, coupled with an unhealthy lifestyle and mental problems, led to Lanza’s mass murder.
Proponents of regulations argue that Lanza was encouraged to commit this mass murder because of the interaction he received from that community, who glorified mass murder. Social media gives hate groups and religious extremists a huge platform they seem to be taking advantage of and it even encourages people to commit acts of violence. This is enough reason in the eyes of proponents of regulation to regulate hateful content.
I agree that hateful content must be regulated, yet I also believe that the degree of regulation must be controlled. People can be influenced by the things they find on social media sites yes, so they should be warned about the nature of the content they are about to see before they see it. If they then choose to see it, then they may do so. This wouldn’t apply to minors, however.
The right for people to view these materials of course would be weighed up against the right for platforms to curate the content they provide. Social media companies would be free to make content harder to find, but they would need to justify this by referring to rules set down by the governmental regulation authority I referred to above. This would keep such material as racist beliefs from most eyes but would also account for freedom of expression. These measures would also help to eliminate another problem for allowing social media companies to regulate their own sites; they won’t define the terms they use to justify censorship. Social media companies have always been incredibly careful to not define the terms they use to justify regulation. They do this for one reason. It gives them near-infinite discretion in content regulation, as if Facebook wanted to remove a post, all they would have to do is sight advocating violence, as Facebook’s rules have no clear definition of advocating violence. This problem is immediately resolved by putting down standard definitions and rules for regulating content on sites. This would also help social media companies as they would avoid a lot of bad press (e.g., none would be able to argue that they are censoring a certain belief). Thus, the rules I have laid down would be beneficial for all parties.
There are many reasons why social media companies must regulate their content; including the influence social media can have on people and how hate groups are using the site to grow their influence. If social media can lead to the deaths of so many (mass shootings, etc..) and the growing influence of hate groups, we must regulate it, but it isn’t the responsibility of private companies, nor should it be, to protect our rights. That is the government’s responsibility. We cannot trust these sites to fairly regulate their sites when all they think of is their bottom line. So, give the responsibility of government to government, and the responsibility of profit to companies.
The Democratic Question
The democratic process is the cornerstone of most modern countries today. The ability of citizens to choose their leaders is the natural conclusion of the sacred beliefs of liberty, brotherhood, and progress that truly underlies a utopian society. Yet democracy is built on the sovereign right of the people to their own well-informed opinions, which has never been more threatened since the advent of social media. Advertising has been around for centuries. Political leaders have always used propaganda to present themselves as god-like, but they never had enough reach to efficiently manipulate people, until social media was invented. Social media made it so that people on the other side of the world (potentially an enemy country), or even a malevolent domestic actor, could manipulate the peoples own opinions to suit their needs. This was allegedly what occurred in the 2016 election victory of Donald Trump. It was found by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller that the Trump campaign had indeed welcomed Russian interference in the US election and had expected to benefit from it. (Justice Department, May 9 2019). This interference came in the form of hacking the Hillary Clinton Campaign, the Defense Department and, most importantly for our purposes, sending out propaganda via various social media sites designed to aid Donald trump’s campaign. (Calabresi, 2017)
There are many who believe, however, that you cannot make people believe something just by making them see it on Twitter or Instagram. Research done by David Clementson at the University of Georgia seems to put this belief into doubt. Clementson ran an experiment where he exposed 3 subject groups to a video of a non-partisan political figure being questioned by a journalist. Specifically, he exposed them to the comments section. Clementson found that the comment section influenced the group of age 18-to-60-year old’s so much that they echoed the comments when asked about their own opinions. The university student group were also influenced; however, their comments didn’t echo the ones they read. In their response to a survey on their opinion, however, they echoed the attitudes of their comment section. All you had to do was influence the comments section and people’s opinions would be changed.
This social media battle between nations is only the most visible battle in a new war that grew out of the Cold War of the 1900s. The Soviets had always wanted one ability above all; to be able to influence public opinion from the other side of the world, and now the Russians can. According to Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corporation (who ran a Defense Department research program to try to understand the possible threats to democracy that social media technology represents), it is possible to manipulate democracy with these technologies and, the scariest thing, it is becoming easier every day. Like any type of computer code, it can be used with the click of a button. (Calabresi, 2017)
I agree that the power of social media platforms to manipulate democracy must be controlled, but I do not believe that social media companies should be the ones to do it. Social media companies have already shown that they are at the very least unwilling (maybe even unable) to properly keep the powers of their platforms in check (refer to the above point on definitions), and there is still a question as to whether we should allow social media companies to control what people see online. Is there a difference between making people see things designed to manipulate their opinions on certain candidates and removing political candidates that you may disagree with or may be incorrect about? Are they not both election tampering? Should we give a private company the ability to influence Democracy? The responsibility to protect democracy is something a government should have, not a private company.
I believe that social media companies can no longer regulate their platforms without non-partisan government oversight, as it now has too much control over things which no private company should control, such as the democratic process and the freedom of expression that we all enjoy. Mark Zuckerberg and other social media kingpins were not chosen by the people; they were not elected, so why should he have such power over our world?
In this modern era, social media is a vital part of our lives and so its companies can’t be purely private or purely public companies. They should be given a separate category under the law than other companies and placed under the authority of a non-political regulatory body of the government, who shall control their powers to manipulate democracy and the rights of people. Let the ones chosen by us choose our fate, for if we leave the situation like it is, we may as well hand Zuckerberg a crown.
Berger, J., 2016. Nazis vs. ISIS on Twitter: A Comparative Study of White Nationalist and ISIS Online Social Media Networks. The George Washington University Program on Extremism, pp. 4 - 5.
Berger, J. & Hartman, J., 2015. The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Issue 20, p. 33.
Calabresi, M., 2017. Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America, s.l.: Time Magazine.
Hartman, T. & Canipe, C., MARCH 23, 2021. A timeline of mass shootings in the U.S.. Reuters: Mass Shootings.
Justice Department, May 9 2019. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III Makes Statement on Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, s.l.: Department of Justice of the United States of America.