Should Congress Regulate Social Media Platforms?

Here’s a tweet from a libertarian that made me think of this:

Do you agree that presence and type of political bias at Facebook is none of Congress’s business? This seems wrong to me on a variety of levels. Let me try and sort them out.

1. In my view, Facebook is a gatekeeper of information and also a public forum–perhaps a provider of a major portion of the public square. If this is accurate (and it may not be), then would have significant power and responsibility over our society and politics;

2. Facebook seems like a monopoly. Even if #1 were true, if there were several other social media platforms that were similar, providing different points of view, #1 might not be a big concern.

Here’s another way to think of it. Suppose there were only one national newspaper–say, the Wall Street Journal or one major network TV news station, MSNBC, for example. Two questions: Would the presence and type of political bias at these outlets be Congress’s business? Would it be good for a democracy if these outlets had a strong political bias? I’m not sure about the legality of the the first question, but I would say that it would be bad if these outlets had a strong political bias.

9 thoughts on “Should Congress Regulate Social Media Platforms?

  1. My answers are going to be predictable, so I’m not sure why I’m responding, but here we go.

    No. Congress should not, beyond all the regulations already in place for other businesses.

    1. In my view, Facebook is a gatekeeper of information and also a public forum–perhaps a provider of a major portion of the public square. If this is accurate (and it may not be), then would have significant power and responsibility over our society and politics;

    I’m not going to say your position is inaccurate, but I don’t agree with it. FB doesn’t tell anyone what info it can or cannot share. It provides an environment, it defines the ground rules for the environment, and then it lets its users play in the environment within the mutually agreed-upon framework of those ground rules. You use the metaphor of the “public square,” and that’s not bad. In a literal public square, who’s the gatekeeper of info?

    2. Facebook seems like a monopoly. Even if #1 were true, if there were several other social media platforms that were similar, providing different points of view, #1 might not be a big concern.

    It’s not a monopoly. Its competition keeps coming at it, hard and without relent. So far nobody’s been able to take over, but ten years ago MySpace owned the entire block. These things come and go, and as long as there’s the chance for competition, something will likely take FB’s place. Let’s not forget that other competitors in social space have been super-threatening. FB bought Instagram. Anyone could have bought Instagram. At the time, it was an iOS-only platform, and we all saw it growing like the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, but nobody else stepped up and acquired it. FB and others made moves on Snapchat when it looked like Snapchat was going to take over (had, in fact, taken over for most twenty-somethings), but then Snapchat went public and kind of fizzled. Shoot, I would say Yelp is closer to a monopoly than FB is, but of course Yelp isn’t one either.

    Here’s another way to think of it. Suppose there were only one national newspaper–say, the Wall Street Journal or one major network TV news station, MSNBC, for example. Two questions: Would the presence and type of political bias at these outlets be Congress’s business? Would it be good for a democracy if these outlets had a strong political bias? I’m not sure about the legality of the the first question, but I would say that it would be bad if these outlets had a strong political bias.

    If there were only one and if no secondary option were available, maybe. And I have a feeling you and I cannot agree on this: the fact that something is “bad” doesn’t imply the government should intervene. And the fact that it is “good” doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Congress can’t figure out how to regulate guns. I don’t trust it to regulate speech.

  2. No. Congress should not, beyond all the regulations already in place for other businesses.

    To be clear, and more specific–do you businesses that are somewhat similar, e.g., TV and radio stations? I lean toward creating comparable regulations, and if not, I would ask why should social media (and internet companies) not be regulated in a commensurate fashion to their offline counterparts?

    I’m not going to say your position is inaccurate, but I don’t agree with it. FB doesn’t tell anyone what info it can or cannot share. It provides an environment, it defines the ground rules for the environment, and then it lets its users play in the environment within the mutually agreed-upon framework of those ground rules.

    This is gatekeeping in my opinion.Facebook is making decisions about what type of information and discourse is acceptable versus unacceptable. We can choose another name instead of “gatekeeping”–“filtering” for example–they’re still exercising significant control over the information and discourse. Would you agree that with this, especially the “significant control” part?

    You use the metaphor of the “public square,” and that’s not bad. In a literal public square, who’s the gatekeeper of info?

    Think of who has influence and control over the information we rely on in the public square–journalists, authors, book companies, libraries, book stores, social media, etc. I feel like all of these entities are gatekeepers.

    So far nobody’s been able to take over,…

    Things may change, but right now, isn’t it fair to say they wield monopolistic power?

    If there were only one and if no secondary option were available, maybe. And I have a feeling you and I cannot agree on this: the fact that something is “bad” doesn’t imply the government should intervene. And the fact that it is “good” doesn’t mean it’s right.

    I actually I think we agree. I don’t think that government intervention is justified simply because something is “bad” or that something is “good” is necessarily right. Also, if it’s not clear by my post, I’m also circumspect–I’m not sure if the government should definitely step in if we only had one major paper or TV news network.

    Congress can’t figure out how to regulate guns. I don’t trust it to regulate speech.

    But Congress already regulates speech in a variety of ways (especially if you include entities like the FCC).

  3. To be clear, and more specific–do you businesses that are somewhat similar, e.g., TV and radio stations? I lean toward creating comparable regulations, and if not, I would ask why should social media (and internet companies) not be regulated in a commensurate fashion to their offline counterparts?

    That is what I mean, although TV and radio are overregulated in many ways as well.

    This is gatekeeping in my opinion.Facebook is making decisions about what type of information and discourse is acceptable versus unacceptable. We can choose another name instead of “gatekeeping”–“filtering” for example–they’re still exercising significant control over the information and discourse. Would you agree that with this, especially the “significant control” part?

    I don’t know about “significant.” The basic policy is don’t be hateful, don’t incite violence, no porn, respect copyright, and watch out for kids. Unless you’re aware of some policy that I haven’t been paying attention to, which is possible.

    Think of who has influence and control over the information we rely on in the public square–journalists, authors, book companies, libraries, book stores, social media, etc. I feel like all of these entities are gatekeepers.

    Okay, I was unclear. I was responding to the literal public squares when those existed. Free speech zones where people would stand on something and say what they wanted.

    Things may change, but right now, isn’t it fair to say they wield monopolistic power?

    It’s fair, but I disagree.

    But Congress already regulates speech in a variety of ways (especially if you include entities like the FCC).

    Yes, I know. I’m saying that FB shouldn’t be regulated beyond those regulations, which I insist are too stringent, but I’m okay with fighting over that line for now. I mean, the line exists in a place where I’m comfortable disagreeing with people. Move it to the left and my disagreeing becomes kind of furious.

    Are you suggesting that FB and other online entities are not regulated the way other free speech is regulated?

  4. That is what I mean, although TV and radio are overregulated in many ways as well.

    OK, then I don’t think we’re that far off. The next step would be to discuss existing regulation for TV and radio, see if it’s being applied to social media, and then determining if the ways in which this is appropriate or not.

    But notice this isn’t a matter of regulating or not regulating social media. We both agree that some regulation is appropriate. We may disagree on the specifics, but even then I’m not entirely sure our differences would be substantive.

    I don’t know about “significant.” The basic policy is don’t be hateful, don’t incite violence, no porn, respect copyright, and watch out for kids. Unless you’re aware of some policy that I haven’t been paying attention to, which is possible.

    I don’t know their policy well, but my understanding is that they have preferences and priorities with regard to content. I don’t think they want to be politically biased. They want information that engages users, makes them happy; they want to prohibit fake news and propaganda from Russian trolls; they prohibit bots. Whether these criteria are good or bad, you don’t think this is exercising significant control over the information that they allow? Imagine if the policies were the opposite from the one above, that would lead to a dramatically different information space, wouldn’t it?

    But the control isn’t “significant” in the sense that any FB user can get information from other sources, they can go to other places to have public discussion.

    Okay, I was unclear. I was responding to the literal public squares when those existed. Free speech zones where people would stand on something and say what they wanted.

    I don’t know the laws at the time, but if there were any that regulated who could speak, what they could say, requirements they would need–that would be a kind of gatekeeping function.

    But let’s say none of those things existed. The gatkeeping for the information that would be used in the literal public square would be similar to the entities I mentioned above. Right? You’d have pamphlets, newspapers, books, maybe churches–all of these things influence what information is available and it also shapes the sense of appropriateness of certain information.

    It’s fair, but I disagree.

    But why? The fact that other businesses could attempt to challenge FB, either now or in the future, doesn’t seem crucial, if the challenge is largely irrelevant. That is, in spite of the challenges, FB would essentially wield monopolistic power.

    Yes, I know. I’m saying that FB shouldn’t be regulated beyond those regulations, which I insist are too stringent, but I’m okay with fighting over that line for now.

    If I didn’t say this earlier, I’ll say this now: I actually don’t know all of the regulations, and I don’t know if they’re being applies to FB or not. My impression is that they’re not, and the regulations are a lot less.

    However, it just occurred to me that I may have this impression because FB doesn’t really thinking of themselves like a news outlet, they don’t apply commensurate standards to filter information and discussion. And this might be the bigger issue versus regulation. On the other hand, if FB refuses to regulate itself in this way, then that might justify the government stepping in. Imagine if news outlets didn’t apply journalistic standards. That might justify greater government intervention.

  5. This is a similar situation:

    If one company owned 90% of the local TV news stations across the country, would that be situation that would warrant the government stepping in to prevent? I tend to think so.

    1. You realize this isn’t the same thing, right? Your example is more like if 90% of the market did its grocery shopping at Foodland instead of Times. Should the government step in then? Or if 90% of the people elected to watch the KGMB news at 6 instead of the KHON news at 6. Should the government step in then?

      1. You realize this isn’t the same thing, right?

        No, I guess not. I’m not sure what you’re saying.

        Edit

        You’re saying that Sinclair has (beaten out competition to win 90% of the market, versus buying 90% of the stations?

  6. Comments about this tweet:

    1. Some have made that 1A doesn’t apply to private entities like youtube. So technically this is not censorship.

    2. At the same time, the fact that entities like youtube, Facebook, and twitter can make this power independently is highly troubling. The level of power here just seems too great for these entities to possess in my view.

    3. What would lessen my anxiety is if these entities–like the press–had professional standards that weren’t somewhat independent of commercial factors. The press has to function with profits in mind, but they also take see themselves as playing a vital role in our democracy–and as far as I can tell, most of them take this role very seriously. Without this attitude and standards, I would be worried about the level of power they wield as well.

    4. With regard to standards, the decision to remove Jones isn’t stupid and scary in my view. Or at least I think it’s more scary and stupid to not try to limit conspiracy thinking and bad faith actors for the the public square.

    Imagine if we had a townhall meeting, where citizens would be able to ask question and discuss important civic matters. If one individual kept offering crazy conspiracy theories, made false accusations and/or berated other participants, it would make sense to have rules against this sort of behavior, as well as enforcing these rules. If this is accurate, why wouldn’t something similar be justified on the internet?

    1. The thread goes on:

      The implications of this perspective are tragic. The business model of technology companies has decimated journalism, but here a tech CEO admits we need that same journalism to save us from the worst side effect of those very same technology companies: a polluted discourse.

      So journalists, the ranks of which have roughly halved, must battle the toxic sludge pumping through the veins of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all while our politicians go hog wild. We’re arguing about Jones on the day we learned the Commerce Secretary stole $120 million!

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