Social media regulation and its discontents

By Matt Field, May 7, 2019

Illustration by Matt Field. Based in part on photo by Sean P. Anderson via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.Illustration by Matt Field. Based in part on photo by Sean P. Anderson via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

Once again Facebook has dumped Alex Jones, a notorious long-time purveyor of hateful conspiracy theories that he and his faux news site Infowars posted far and wide on Facebook and elsewhere. A couple of his hits? Former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her associates ran a child-sex ring; the school massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut never happened. The list of whopping, despicable lies goes on. While Facebook dropped Jones once before in 2018, this second breakup seems more sweeping and permanent. This time, adhering to its terms-of-service policy, Facebook labeled Jones as a “dangerous individual.”

Jones and some of the others the social media giant dumped last week were big-time pushers of fake news and hate. They helped turn the platforms into such a toxic stew that many, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have seized on the need for social media regulation to tamp down on the harmful content, weak privacy protection, and other issues.

But regulation proponents in the United States, including Zuckerberg, still have trouble articulating a legally credible way to legislate away the main problems with internet companies like Facebook or Google. (After Zuckerberg’s recent call for regulation on content, a Facebook official clarified the CEO didn’t want the government to define speech rules.) Meanwhile countries in Europe are tearing ahead with sweeping restrictions on hate speech (Germany), terrorist content (European Union), privacy protections (European Union), and copyright protections (European Union). Some of these rules aren’t in effect yet, and some were years in the making.

Of course, as Europe has tightened the reins on the Silicon Valley tech companies, there has been collateral damage. The New York Times recently reported on the growing number of people caught up in the struggle between a Europe being billed as “the world’s toughest watchdog of Silicon Valley” and the wild free-for-all of the internet platforms. A German man named Jorg Rupp, for instance, parodied a song by inserting anti-immigrant and anti-Angela Merkel lyrics. Twitter froze his account. Rupp told the Times it had all been satire and that he showed Twitter his supportive tweets about immigration. No matter. It took Rupp shelling out $500 in legal fees to get his account reactivated.

Then there’s Cassandra Vera, who was 21 in 2017 when a Spanish court convicted her on terrorism charges for a sarcastic tweet about the decades-old assassination of a Spanish prime minister. After public outcry, her sentence was ultimately suspended. Amnesty International and some academics have called out some of Europe’s content regulations for impinging on free speech.

But for every story about how government social media regulation will squelch free speech, there are more data points showing extremists around the world pumping ever more hate into the social media circulatory system. Despite a growing world-wide awareness of the societally corrosive aspects of social media, Europe seems to have a clearer and more direct way of dealing with these problems via government action than the United States, which has left the task largely in the hands of social media platforms themselves.


Publication Name: The New York Times
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Here’s a radical idea:

What if we fully funded education to enable people to detect lies and hate speech?

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