My father’s side of the family is enormous, as is to be expected from an Arab family. My father had 11 siblings growing up, and each of these siblings had an average of 4 children. This meant that while I lived in the Middle East I came into contact with all my aunts and uncles, and countless cousins as well. What I learned from this large family dynamic was that as my family members got older there were elevated responsibilities that came on their shoulders. When parents aged, the oldest children took on the responsibility of taking that parental mantle for the younger siblings. This was all a function of time and stature.
It is with this sort of structure in mind that I have started to think about social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. In their infancy, they were the young upstarts of the internet. The new money of the internet economy to borrow a term from The Great Gatsby. But as time has gone on, the user bases of these platforms have ballooned and their utility has changed. Consider it this way, in the early days of Facebook and Twitter they were used as connecting places to find friends and family to keep updated on your life. But with time, they have also become discussion forums, news outlets, and online marketplaces. This all begs the question, with all of this responsibility what sort of accountability do these platforms need to have?
The Turning Point
Over the last few years, Facebook and Twitter have come under scrutiny for the roles that they have played in the political process in this country. Facebook was found to have some groups using its platform to sway the results of the US presidential election and Twitter has dealt with accusations of censoring conservative voices on its app. Both of these stories are a far cry from the days of old that were centered around selfies and cat videos. These are allegations that are very serious that CEOs of tech companies have had to testify about.
Ever since the first term of the Obama presidency, social media was utilized as a tool to reach potential voters. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama received 66% of votes from voters under 30 (a 13% increase from the previous election) and this had a lot to do with the campaign utilizing social media. Obama was looked at as the young upstart candidate that used these platforms regularly, this made him more relatable than older candidates that didn’t know how to operate a smartphone. This success showed how to reach younger voters, but more importantly showed that social media could be used as a tool to reach a voting population that was consuming traditional news media less than ever before.
We have seen those very traditional media outlets understand this and make a pivot to accommodate that. It has become commonplace to see more engagement from journalists and the official social media accounts of CNN and FOX News than through their traditional outlets. In 2016, Donald Trump utilized Facebook to his advantage by targeting his main demographic (middle-aged, middle class, white Americans) which had become frequent Facebook users. And this is how he was able to get his message across, and ultimately what helped to secure the presidency for him.
This set the precedent that social media could be used for political gain, and as a result, we have seen countless groups formed around political ideology on Facebook, and for certain topics to become trending on Twitter. This momentum shift has also exposed a negative ugliness on these platforms in the process. The birth of QAnon and Antifa Facebook groups spewing false narratives and spreading erroneous information eventually led to Facebook banning hundreds of these groups from its platform. Twitter similarly, has banned many accounts they have found to have been spreading misinformation and inciting violence. These moves have presented the questions of what is the right way to police a platform and what sort of accountability should Facebook and Twitter have in these cases.
The Section 230 Debate
There is a school of thought when it comes to matters regarding social media accounts that the entity that hosts a platform should be responsible for the content that its users post. For example, if a user were to make posts that incite violence on Twitter then Twitter needs to be held accountable for allowing that content to appear on its platform. This sort of recourse is currently not allowed under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act here in the United States. The law states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
There have been movements however to repeal this law, thus making Facebook and Twitter liable for anything that its users post. If this were to happen then Facebook and Twitter would need to evaluate every post and increase moderation to ensure that they will not be held liable. And some will suggest that this is the suppression of free speech when in reality it would be private companies covering their bottom lines and avoiding negative publicity and sullied reputations. The irony of the suppressed speech on social media network idea is that Facebook and Twitter are for-profit companies that own the platforms that people post on. So if they decide to not allow certain types of rhetoric then they are more than within their rights to do so.
The argument does hold a little more weight, however, when one considers that there are no alternatives. Outside of Facebook and Twitter, there are few outlets for people to post their thoughts. And even these other outlets like Reddit for instance, also have moderation policies. The underlying thought becomes that you can say whatever you want to your close family and friends, but to spread the information at a wider scale then there are some repercussions because you are dealing with companies that are concerned about their stock market valuation and public perception. But Section 230 by itself should absolve these social media websites of the responsibility that they now need to come to grips with and have a solution for in the modern age.
A Sense of Accountability
We have already established that news outlets have pivoted to utilizing social media to reach more users. But it also seems that more and more people are using what they see on social media as their primary source for news. Considering the rampant moderation issues that these companies face, this is problematic behavior. Both Facebook and Twitter have implemented forms of fact-checking articles that are posted on its platforms, making it clear that the information being shared has been disproven by various sources. But is it enough?
Is merely labeling a post inaccurate enough? Well, in the case of Facebook and Twitter they would answer that it is not enough. As both companies have taken to suspending and banning accounts that continue to post debunked news articles. Moderating such a large amount of posts is no easy task, and quite often we see some posts that slip between the cracks.
This issue falls back to the reality that social media networks were never designed to be the pulpits of modern activism. But they have become them due to their wildly accessible nature and the exploitation of their reach by people looking to spark change. On one hand, it can be viewed that this is merely a proper allocation of technology, that this is merely the next step from demonstrating in the streets to demonstrating over the web. Yet the fact that Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey never envisioned their platforms being tools of anger and revolution must be taken into account.
What is to be done then? In my estimation, a more public-facing and transparent stance on the dissemination of fraudulent reporting is the first step. Facebook in particular has taken various stances on moderating dangerous content on its platform. There has to be a line in the sand that is drawn from these companies that encourages freedom of expression and opinion while still making sure that any incitement of violence is not tolerated. This is the responsibility that social networks now have because they are relied upon so heavily.
Consider the average usage for a smartphone user on a daily basis. Most people have the following apps installed (or at least a few of them): Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok. These frequently appear in top download and usage lists every year for mobile apps. They are the first apps that people open up when they wake up in the morning alongside text messages and email. The information that these services allow to go through their networks is essential, and these companies do have a responsibility to be good tech citizens and make sure that erroneous articles and hate speech are not flooding the platform. It all starts with transparency and taking a harsher stance with a consistency that has yet to be enforced. No longer can Twitter and Facebook sit idly by as “just a tech company”. They are media platforms at this point, and need to be held to similar standards, or else this cycle of hatred and violence will only continue to persist.
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