Legal Articles

“Should social media platforms regulate the content that users post? Should they have to?”

The 21st century society thrives on social media platforms, which have become key institutions in the digital sphere today. The deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol which were incited through social media, the rampant spread of misinformation regarding the pandemic and increased number of cybercrimes all throw light on the fact that the status quo no longer works. Over the years, there have been various regulations in a number of communication avenues. Whether it was the sinking of the Titanic, caused in part by “chaos in the spectrum” which led to the Radio Act of 1912 or the creation of safe-harbour hours during which broadcasters may transmit material deemed indecent for children, we have adapted a system where media tries not to hamper the lives of the people in the best ways possible. Now with the emergence of the overpowering social media network, it has become imperative to set out regulations for the same.

As John Stuart Mill said, “liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” Freedom of speech must not be looked at as an entitlement to be reached. An individual must be free to speak what he/she wants, within the confines of hate speech, libel law and so on. Some may see restrictions on social media content as a violation of the right of freedom of expression. (Nations, 1948) However, as Christopher Wylie rightly said, “if we took the premise that people should have a lawful right to be manipulated and deceived, we wouldn’t have rules on fraud or undue influence”. (News, 2020) Social media often publishes misinformation including hoaxes, fabricated reports and conspiracy theories as well as hurtful comments and extremist ideas. The 2020 Presidential elections in the United States witnessed unprecedented havoc when President Trump made unfounded claims about widespread voting fraud. Indian politician T. Raja Singh has said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques, in a series of Facebook posts and remains active with thousands of followers. (Horwitz, 2020)

With great power comes great responsibility. Today, every user has access to the powers of social media but not every one of them is responsible. With the increased use of social media, malicious and irresponsible people misuse their freedom scam, attack, and hurt others. Cyber bullying has become rampant among teenagers. The National Children’s Home study in Britain found that one in four children reported being bullied on the Internet. (Amedie, 2015) Cyber defamation too has seen a sharp increase in claims in Britain. Ministry of justice data shows that the number of defamation lawsuits handled by the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court has almost trebled from 112 in 2016 to 323 in 2019. (Harris, 2020) The root cause of the increase in these cases seems to be social media. It is now possible to dent someone’s hard earned reputation with a single click of a button. An online comment, such as a tweet, is potentially libellous in England and Wales if it damages someone’s reputation under Defamation Act 2013. However, it takes less than five minutes for a tweet to go viral and a person’s reputation to go in shambles. Thus, efficient regulation is required.

An anti-regulation approach neglects public interest. Social media is flooded with content that incites violence. In Myanmar, Facebook was intensively employed to spread hate speech and boost anti-Rohingya feelings which further fuelled violence. that played an essential role in fuelling violence that targeting Rohingya. The UN fact finders have detected that Facebook has a fundamental and determining role in boosting anti-Rohingya feelings inside Myanmar. (Meixler, 2018) President Trump incited a violent attack on the Capitol after making false claims of electoral fraud, which led to his suspension from Facebook and Twitter. (Bergengruen, 2021) Another such act took place in India when a post by inflammatory post by P Naveen led to

violence in Bengaluru’s locality. On the flip side, if used and regulated correctly social media can play a positive role in reducing violence. The Turkish government has recently cracked down on 200 accounts affiliated with terrorist activities. (Arnold, 2018) Today, Facebook’s A.I. system is able to flag 99 percent of the ISIS and Al Qaida content before any human sees it. This ensures safety across the community.

The most fundamental flaw that exists within these social media platforms is that they do not provide a neutral environment. Algorithms make decisions about what people see or do not see and the platforms are capable of artificially amplifying and providing manipulative information on a wide scale. The result of such an algorithm is the user being constantly bombarded with similar posts. It becomes an even greater issue when this information is shared across different platforms. This has created a pressing need for the breaking up of market and social media monopoly of large firms such as Facebook. The US government and a coalition of 48 states and districts have filed parallel lawsuits against Facebook in a major antitrust offensive that accused the social media behemoth of anticompetitive behaviour and could ultimately force its breakup. They claim Facebook used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals at the expense of everyday users. (Canon, 2020)

The current system for regulation employed by most social media platforms includes barring content that is sexually explicit, glorifies violence, contains hate speech, etc. They have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation by fact checking posts and labelling the accounts of state-run media. (Merrow, 2021) Facebook is in the process of developing A.I. tools that can identify certain classes of bad activity proactively and flag it for the team at Facebook. At present, they wait for someone in the community to find something to be offensive or against their policies flag it for them. (Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 2018) However, these platforms seem to be very irregular in their regulations and have let politicians misuse the platform as in the case of President Trump and Indian politician T. Raja Singh. Another study looked at the extent to which alcoholic beverage brands operating on the Swedish market follow national advertising regulations and industry self-regulating codes in their postings on social media and found that beverage brands had alarmingly inadequate age-gates to social media accounts. The social media platforms must be legally bound to take these regulations seriously. (Mikaela Lindeman, 2019)

Thus, there was must be government involvement in regulation. In the United States social media companies enjoy strong liability protections and are largely self-regulating, while China has some of the most restrictive censorship laws in the world. The Chinese government has long kept tight reins on both traditional and new media to avoid potential subversion of its authority. The Indian government too is looking for tighter controls over social media after Twitter ignored orders to remove content over farmers’ protests. (Reuters, 2021) Another key problem of a lot of regulatory measures is the vagueness of language which is exploited by state agencies to behave in a repressive way. This will take away the key feature of social media being a platform for direct communication. Due to the aforementioned reasons, a combination of private company based as well as government enforced regulations are necessary.

Furthermore, the outlines for such regulations should be provided in a legal code in order to ensure that the government cannot take unfair advantage of the regulations. Since social media is an ever changing avenue, there should be specially trained judges to deal with related cases. There should also be focus on the development of superior A.I. technologies that provide efficient regulations of social media content. As Charles Darwin rightly said, “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. Social media serves as a testimony of the fact that the world is changing rapidly, our thoughts and ideas should progress at the same pace.

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