The “Wild West” of social media faces intervention
Facebook and Twitter executives testified on Capitol Hill earlier this month to discuss the speculated shadow banning, or suppressing, of the accounts of certain right-wing individuals and organizations and the dangers of foreign-sponsored advertisements swaying public opinion.
Out of the calculated testimonies and heated discussions, the big question emerged: should the United States government impose regulations on social media? The overarching response was a resounding “no.”
The possible hampering of these accounts angered many politicians, but what could this mean for the average social media user? While some believe that government regulation impedes free speech, others argue that safety is of the greatest concern.
Sophomore accounting major Amy Friedl said regulations should not be tolerated, as it would influence what content is visible to the user.
Friedl contended that this ostensible censorship could create a skewed version of reality that does not include the whole truth, which becomes an issue for people who use Twitter as a news-gathering medium.
“[It] is my duty to actively take part in and be aware of today’s politics,” Friedl said. “I want to be educated so I can make my own decisions.”
Despite claims that Twitter feed bias is a new and targeted phenomenon, Associate Professor of Communication Luis Almeida said shadow banning is not just a recent political statement but is built into the structure of the platform itself.
“[It] already happens to some degree because the algorithm already does not show all the messages we put out…unless you pay for it,” Almeida said.
Tweets are not ordered chronologically but rather by certain popularity factors. New Yorker contributor Mattathias Schwartz summarized Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s defense of this algorithm, explaining that users have the right to post what they want, but this does not guarantee that their tweets will have significant reach.
Concerning the other hot-button issue—foreign interference in ads—government regulation in this realm still sparks controversy. Arguments in favor of regulation are centered around the avoidance of foreign influence on American opinions. The counter is that governmental involvement could obstruct certain democratic liberties.
“I think it is both wrong and illegal to stifle anyone’s speech on a social media platform,” Friedl said. “Regardless of what is said, everyone is granted the right to voice their opinion through the first amendment of the Constitution.”
Dissension arises when partial government intervention is proposed because there does not seem to be a clear path. Companies could be forced to make their ad records public, but some question whether that is in line with free enterprise.
“I don’t know if it is the responsibility of Facebook to disclose [advertising] information to the U.S. government,” Almeida said. “That is not what a company is supposed to do because, if somebody is spending X amount of dollars, I don’t think [that makes sense] from a corporate standpoint.”
Almeida questions whether government hands in private businesses would even result in compliance.
“I don’t know if an [American] business person would give up $700,000 in revenue just because the government said no,” Almeida said.
Another possibility for government regulation is eradicating foreign payments to sites based in the U.S. However, Almeida does not believe this is an economically sensible solution either, as stifling foreign support may force social media platforms to charge their users.
Proposed solutions to the dangers of social media seem to hit roadblock after roadblock. Almeida proposes that maybe society can find a way to live in the “wild west” of this technology, soothing the sting from the possibility that we—users, politicians, citizens—are being beaten by the consequences of our innovation.
Prior to the rise of social media, the need to compose solutions to these issues was nonexistent.
Almeida suggests that the solution may be self-regulation. Friedl agrees, asserting that the user’s discretion must be employed when scrolling through their feeds.
“We don’t live in a country with freedoms; we live in a country with liberties,” Almeida said. “That means that the things that we say carry consequences.”
These consequences drive the search for solutions as the Department of Justice continues to discuss the role of social media. Whatever the outcome of these discussions, action is being taken.