The introduction of the internet and social media fundamentally changed the scale and nature of individual interactions, entertainment, and news.
The Impact: Social media is woven into society’s fabric with little regulation to protect its users. It has become our online society with seemingly no boundaries to ensure or define good digital citizenship, creating a potentially unstable, unpredictable, and unsafe environment for its users. As such, without change, social media is a threat to our wellbeing, national security, and our democracy.
The Traditional Media existed in a tightly controlled ecosystem. Traditional media companies and cable operators are limited in audience reach by bandwidth and audience engagement by definitive broadcast scheduling. News publishers abide by ridged journalistic standards with harsh penalties for non-compliance. These standards were the foundation of the trust in our news system.
The barriers to gaining celebrity status limited the number of influencers. While the early designs were not entirely neutral, they have served the public interest since the advent of broadcast in the early 20th Century.
The two main differences between traditional media and social media are that the latter is based on user content and operates in an open, mostly unregulated ecosystem. Social media presents a tremendous opportunity for “ordinary people” to have their talents seen and voices heard beyond the reach of traditional media and in a much more intimate way. It has revolutionized the way businesses market themselves and transact business.
What you need to know: Private Companies are not the Government and operate under a different set of rules. Many have concerns that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are violating the First Amendment. The truth is, the First Amendment allows individuals to express themselves without government interference, but the law does not apply to private companies.
Current Regulation: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material. This protection was meant to protect both the consumer of internet information and the provider of the information. Some notable highlights include the following sections.
It is the policy of the United States:
- to remove disincentives for the development and utilization of blocking and filtering technologies that empower parents to restrict their children’s access to objectionable or inappropriate online material; and
- to ensure vigorous enforcement of Federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking in obscenity, stalking, and harassment by means of computer
Civil liability – No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of:
- any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected
Effect on other laws:
- No effect on criminal laws relating to obscenity, relating to sexual exploitation of children, sex trafficking or any other Federal criminal statute
Private companies can suspend or block accounts as they see fit as long as they do not break Section 230 or any other Federal Regulation.
Social Media and other internet platforms blocking accounts isn’t new. Usually, it comes without warning or an understanding of the reason for the blocking of the account.
The Disconnect: Section 230 Legislation was passed at a time when no one, even the tech giants themselves, could have imagined the vast way social media would be used. The legislation was passed before businesses, healthcare, and education were intertwined with the internet and social media. But more importantly, Section 230 was passed before the weaponization of storytelling with the help of technology.
2020 the year of self-regulated chaos: Customers tried to force Facebook to regulate the ecosystem by starting the June 2020 #StoptheHate Campaign asking advertisers to boycott the platform. Over 400 corporations, including JP Morgan and Microsoft, suspended advertising or cut advertising spend.
Small businesses and midsize businesses supported the boycott. The results were mixed. It was easy for some to change advertising to Instagram, where the audience is younger and more liberal than Facebook’s more conservative audience. For others, the mostly visual ad format did not work. To keep their business afloat, they had to go back to advertising on Facebook.
Larger businesses met with Facebook to demand that filters be put in place to make sure their ads did not come up near hate speech, political posts, and other types of controversial posts.
As Facebook focused their efforts on controlling disinformation around the U.S. election this past November, it relied on its Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) to monitor the rest of the platform. According to Bloomberg, the A.I. algorithm banned ads for businesses already reeling from the pandemic and relying on Black Friday sales by mistake.
January 6, 2021: It took a violent mob storming the United States capital, something that has not happened since the war of 1812, to get the attention of lawmakers, to consider the realignment of Section 230 to the realities of the 21st Century.
The Path Forward: The complexities of Social Media requires a multi-faceted solution. A high-quality solution will take the cooperation of the technology companies, the legislators, and a brain trust of specialized experts in sociology and other fields working in tandem to identify and define the issues and build guard rails that will stand the test of time of technology innovation.
Corporations have to address the unhealthiness of the social media environment. Sean Parker, the founding President of Facebook, left the company and, in 2017, explained how he and other engineers created “the social validation loop” to drive the social media business goal of consuming as much of our attention, time, and information as possible. Parker explains this led to “innovations” rooted in tapping into human psychology’s vulnerability.
Congress must bridge their science and technology knowledge gap. They must build a 21st Century brain trust of advisors to define and address the challenges of regulating all technologies. The Brain Trust must be diverse and inclusive, devoid of the usual politics, and include:
- Top talent across emerging technologies
- Medical scientists
- Experts in anthropology, sociology, psychology
- Ordinary people who can speak to the ecosystem
- Business leaders not just from the largest companies but also small and midsize business leaders
- Freelancers, Consultants, Gig workers who rely on social media to help build their business and income
Customers must take personal responsibility for how they use and interact with others on social media.
The Bottom Line: The stakes could not be higher. Our response to this multi-faceted issue will shape our society for generations. There are no easy answers, and getting it right will require a collective effort.