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.

18 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!

  7. One takeaway from this piece (which is based on 50 sources), whether you support more government oversight on FB and other social media or not, is that Facebook definitely can’t be trusted to act within the public interest.

    Also, Zuckerberg, and maybe Sandberg as well, are totally in over their heads–in terms of understanding the role they play forming the public square and fulfilling this role in a responsible way, while also satisfying shareholders. (This impression is also based on the recent Frontline documentary.)

    (On a side note, I was surprised to see that they actually an expert Russian cyberwarfare. I wonder if their expertise doesn’t include active measures. If this person is knowledgeable about active measures, that is a really bad sign for the company.)

  8. In the thread below, there are some caveats. (I haven’t read the entire thread.)

  9. (Putting this hear because I want to read this paper linked below.)

  10. Even if one doesn’t believe social media companies like Facebook, twitter, et al., should be regulated, this status quo seems wrong and potentially destructive to our democracy. Here’s a thread from the editor of Mother Jones magazine.

    The gist: WSJ discovered that Facebook adjusted the algorithms to limit traffic to more progressive news sites. Whether this was intentional or not, does it seem right that Facebook has this type of power? And put aside whether government should be involved or not.

    The economic side effect seems pretty significant, too. On some level, Facebook is not responsible for the financial situation of news organizations–unless they thought they had some civic responsibility, and I think you could make a case for this. Facebook and twitter, at least, have become crucial, maybe even indispensable parts of the public square–a key arena for political discourse and the exchange of news and information. They can have a significant influence on TV and news outlets as well, and not just economically. In short, you could make a case that they are a part of the 4th estate or crucial arm of it.

    Theoretically, they could or severe restrict information from one party or political ideology. They could target and inflict severe damage to specific news outlets. If this is true, doesn’t this seem like they have too much power?

  11. I ran political advertising for Twitter. It’s time for platforms to mute Trump. WaPo op-ed by Peter Greenberger

    The platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Google) have already told the president that they won’t host comments suggesting that the election is being stolen, and he continued posting them. Why would anyone expect him to listen when they tell him not to question the outcome of the election or call on supporters to contest it with violence? This is someone who literally shared fake news when he recently tweeted an article about Twitter’s temporary outage from a satirical website. It is time to proactively silence him from both platforms.

    I’m very sympathetic to Greenberger’s argument and a part of me wholeheartedly agrees. At the same time, I don’t feel comfortable with this decision. The question isn’t whether they can or can’t do this, legally. The question for me is if this is appropriate or not, given the level of power and influence these three platforms have. If there were alternatives that had similar reach and numbers of users, I’d have far less of a problem with this. Consider if, in the 70s, the three major TV networks said they would no longer feature President Nixon. Well, there is PBS and public access TV, so people have other options, right? No, that wouldn’t cut it.

    I think Trump supporters would, on some level, feel right to think this is unfair. At the same time, the rationale for banning him is legitimate. But given our information environment, where we don’t seem to have sources of information that is trusted by most people on both sides, this makes this move even more problematic.

    1. Broadcast TV and radio stations have a federal mandate to serve the public interest in ways that are (loosely) spelled out in FCC guidelines. That’s why you see those PSA spots, and in certain off hours (like Sunday mornings) community forum type programming. Not because they make the stations money, but to satisfy a requirement.

      Further, broadcast stations with news programs usually have (beyond turning a profit, which is definitely part of it) statements of purpose. The ABC News exists to deliver news about America and the world, so not covering the president isn’t really an option.

      Private social media platforms come neither with federal mandates nor self-proclaimed greater good missions. Nor must they necessarily aspire to some kind of neutrality. As publicly held corporations, the platforms you mention are beholden to stockholders and a board. It’s a different framework for decision-making entirely.

      If 45 were iced out of FB and Twitter for good, do you not think he would still find a way to get his message out? He could start his own platform if he wanted, and almost by necessity, the news outlets would have to cover it. As it is, this is how most people hear about whatever the guy is Tweeting anyway, from the news. I don’t follow that account and neither do the overwhelming (yes, overwhelming) majority of people I know.

      If the platforms ice him, it won’t be out of the blue and for no reason. They have stated rules of conduct, and if users violate the policies, the platforms have every right and reason to ban the users. Do you not agree with this?

    2. It’s a different framework for decision-making entirely.

      But is this appropriate? I would be surprised if the rationale and justification for government requirements for TV and radio stations would not apply to social media companies.

      He could start his own platform if he wanted, and almost by necessity,…

      In my Nixon example, that would be like telling Nixon to start his own TV station.

      And my guess is that if Trump wasn’t on Twitter, his influence on the TV and print news might less or different in a way that likely wouldn’t help him.

      If the platforms ice him, it won’t be out of the blue and for no reason. They have stated rules of conduct, and if users violate the policies, the platforms have every right and reason to ban the users. Do you not agree with this?

      I do, but this is like saying the NFL has rules for holding and pass interference. The rules don’t mean that this will eliminate controversy.

      The larger point is the amount of power these platforms have in terms of being part of the public square. Do you disagree with that?

  12. It doesn’t seem to matter to you that the government owns the airwaves and therefore has implicit authority in that space, while FB and Twitter are a completely different animal, so I’ll stop trying to argue this position. Although I will say that if you think government regulation for communicating on the airwaves and, say, in a very popular cafe should be the same, we will simply never, ever agree on any of this.

    Unless, if the country agrees with you, some kind of legislation is enacted to apply the same sensibilities. There is a mechanism for it, but I find it hard to believe it would be constitutional.

    Your Nixon comparison doesn’t work, Reid, because PBS is Twitter and FB. Take away Twitter, and you’re taking away PBS, not the mainstream broadcast stations.

    Additionally, George W. Bush didn’t use Twitter at all (if memory serves) and he was still the most reported-on figure in the country. Barack Obama used it sparingly, and he was probably covered even more. Removing Twitter from 45’s arsenal is hardly limiting. Don’t you think that if he chose to communicate via IG or some other social media platform, that’s where everyone who follows him would go, including all the news outlets? OR he could just wait until the sun came up like most public figures, call a news outlet, and say whatever he wants.

    Your NFL comparison also doesn’t work, because the NFL already has the power to decide how it applies its rules, and if consumers don’t like it, they can just not watch the games. Whether Twitter applies its rules clearly, transparently, and consistently or not, it’s within its rights to apply them however it wants. And if its users don’t like it, they can simply go to FB or IG or Flickr or any number of social media platforms.

    The larger point is the amount of power these platforms have in terms of being part of the public square. Do you disagree with that?

    They have power, but it’s not inherent power. Consumers have chosen these platforms, and they can unchoose them just as easily. Ask MySpace. And who has more power to get a message out: Twitter, or the President of the United States?

  13. The airwaves seems analogous to the internet, while CBS, for example, is analogous to Twitter. The government makes rules/regulates what private companies can and cannot do on the internet, right? What am I missing?

    As for social media companies like FB, twitter, and google, what does it matter if their power is inherent or not? The situation seems to be similar to a monopoly. A company with overwhelming market power may not be inherently powerful, they’ve just come to amass that power. But that doesn’t mean that’s OK–that this is not a bad thing for society, right?

    You have no problem with the level of control FB, google, and twitter have over the traffic to progressive or conservative sites? That this level of control could dramatically impact the financial bottom line of these companies?

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