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Social media censorship is a public concern and needs a public solution

With much of public discussion now taking place on the three main social platforms the time has come to take editorial control away from their owners.

Even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal it had become apparent what a major role social media was already playing in public life. Politicians use Twitter to communicate directly with the electorate and spend billions on Facebook’s targeted advertising. Meanwhile a new generation of political and social commentators have been given their voice by YouTube and now attract audience numbers mainstream media can only dream of.

It must be stressed, however, that all three of these platforms are commercial operations with obligations to maximise returns to their investors. In all three cases the business model is the classic media one of charging for access to their audience, which means they rely on advertisers for their revenue. This in turn can lead to conflicts of interest.

These have always existed in traditional media too. It is far more common than you might imagine for publications to receive pressure from advertisers to change editorial decisions under threat of advertising revenue being taken away. They then face a simple choice: the short-term fix of capitulation to blackmail or the long-term investment in the trust of their audience and the credibility of their title.

This dilemma is different for social media, however, since they don’t produce the content they sell advertising against. Instead their business model has been to make is as easy as possible for anyone in the world to publish on their platforms, a model so successful that much of the advertising traditional media used to rely on has now moved to social media, such that digital ad spend is forecast to overtake traditional spend in the US this year.

Inevitably social media companies are facing the same kind of advertiser pressure traditional media always have, but their response is usually to capitulate. The reason for this is simple: they have no investment whatsoever in the content they host and no specific editorial theme or angle to protect. Because of this they seem much more ready to remove content and even ban users if they think it will keep the ad money flowing.

One other by-product of caving in to commercial pressure is that it sets a precedent, with advertisers emboldened to be ever more demanding with their blackmail. In the case of social media this has resulted in increasing pressure to ban any posts or contributors advertisers fear may harm their brands by association. Their capitulation has also emboldened activists to call for bans of anyone they disagree with, sometimes even alerting advertisers to the public relations danger in order to further increase the pressure.

This PR pressure came to a head for Facebook last week when it decided to ban several accounts it had unilaterally decided were ‘dangerous’ and to pre-brief a number of media about it before even notifying the users themselves. While opponents of the people banned applauded the move, there has been wider concern about the arbitrary nature of the action and about the power of Facebook to decide who gets to take part in the public conversation.

A common argument at times like this, often made by people otherwise deeply suspicious of the motives of big corporations, is to insist that private companies like Facebook are free to police their platforms as they see fit. But the fact that those platforms are where most public discussion takes place, and that those companies tend to just buy competitors when they get too big, means this is a public concern both from a freedom of speech and a competition perspective.

Probably the most famous social media user is also arguably the most significant politician in the world: US President Donald Trump. He was deeply concerned by Facebook’s actions and, appropriately enough wasted little time tweeting about it.

He went on to refer to one of the banned people – Paul Joseph Watson, a UK citizen – directly in subsequent tweets and retweeted a number people objecting to the move, noting it appeared to target people on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Watson responded by calling for him to revoke the protection internet platforms have from the consequences of what is posted on them, since it was now acting as a publisher.  

Elsewhere one of the founders of Facebook published an op-ed calling for the break-up of Facebook on the grounds that it had grown too powerful and that too much of that power is held by Mark Zuckerberg alone, who personally possesses the overall majority of voting power in the company. Others have argued, however, that since Facebook isn’t a monopoly in any of its markets any attempt to break it up would be illegal and that a far more effective strategy would be better regulation.

Again it’s common for accusations of hypocrisy to be levelled at those who call for regulation to protect freedom of speech, but in this case the position is entirely consistent. If speech is being restricted by a private oligopoly then public intervention may be the only way to combat it. As any telecoms company could tell you, regulation of oligopolies in markets with high barriers to entry is commonplace and vital to ensure consumers aren’t held to ransom.

The father of the free market Adam Smith famously wrote the following in his definitive book ‘The nature and causes of the wealth of nations’, in reference to the necessity of regulating cartels: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

In this case we’re not talking about cartel behaviour, although sometimes their activities can seem suspiciously coordinated, nor is the primary concern a contrivance to raise prices. The commodity at stake is not money but the ability to take part in public discussion. This is arguably no less important a utility than water, electricity or telephony, but to date the companies that control it have faced far less scrutiny than utilities.

Such is this burden of responsibility that even Zuckerberg himself has publicly called for increased regulation. His underlying motives may be self-preservatory, but the logic is sound. Nobody thinks access to public conversation should be controlled by private companies, but currently there are few regulations in place to take that decision away from them. Zuckerberg seems to have concluded that if there were, that would take a lot of the heat off him.

Decisive regulation may also pre-empt the litigation that is bound to hit social media companies as they continue to restrict their users. Watson indicated he’s tempted to take legal action, especially since the discovery phase would require Facebook to reveal the rationale behind his banning, possibly exposing the political bias he suspects is behind it. Watson also recently tweeted about a possible legal precedent that may be set in Poland, that would prohibit social media companies from acting against anything legal.

This would appear to be the best solution for everyone. Social media companies would be able to tell pushy advertisers that such decisions have been taken out of their hands, while users would have the law is their sole guide to what is acceptable to publish. There would still be the matter of different laws in different countries and deliberately censorious and ill-defined legal terms such as ‘hate speech’, but things would be a lot clearer than they are now.

Essentially this would mean that, in order to retain the protections afforded to platforms, social media would not be able to censor anything legal. Alternatively, if they want to take a more active editorial role they should be treated as publishers and thus be liable for all content published on them, right now they’re somewhere in between and that’s unsustainable. Here’s independent Journalist Tim Pool with a US take on the matter.

 


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