Social Media Platforms Should Not Be Sheriffs for Government Control

No matter of which political affiliation you are, you should be able to agree on this: there is a lot of awful content on social media. Cyber-bullying, blackmail, violations of personal privacy, antisemitism, or just sheer nonsensical abuse howled at the most innocent tweets, Facebook posts, or Instagram pictures. For a long time, social media platforms have used their community guidelines to counteract many of the content they did not want to see featured on their sites. From a contract perspective, that is only fair: I am using a platform like Facebook for no charge, and in return, I accept that parts of my personal data are being used for marketing – and that Facebook can remove content that violates their guidelines.

The conservative political spectrum has rejected the dominant positions of some social media carriers from an anti-trust perspective. These voices believe that there will be no end to the dominant positions of Facebook and Twitter, when it is obvious that on a free market, these positions shift dramatically in a short amount of time. All it takes is to see how some media outlets reacted to Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, this 2007 Guardian article titled “Will MySpace ever lose its monopoly?“ or the beautiful 2007 Forbes cover story “Can anyone catch the cell phone king?”, meaning Nokia.

The left dislikes social media platforms for the same reason they dislike any successful company: tax optimization and negotiations with governments have lowered the relative tax burdens of these companies, which is being regarded as unfair. This is particularly true in Europe, which dwells on the fact that none of the major tech companies in the world is European.

However, the regulation of social media companies has become more than just an argument over the size of these companies, but increasingly about the speech that is happening on these platforms. What governments label as “illicit content” is increasingly not about harmful bullying, blackmail, or fraud, but about dissenting opinions and the truthfulness of news. On the latter point, the European Union built a platform called EUvsDisinfo back in 2015, which is still pretending to debunk fake news. In an article back in 2018, I laid out the program used opinion content to debunk and call for censorship. Here’s one nugget:

“In January, two Dutch websites discovered that they had been labelled as fake news by EUvsDisinfo. The Eurosceptic websites had criticised Ukrainian politics and were subsequently labelled as fake news by the EEAS task force, which did not want to retract the article. As a result, EUvsDisinfo was handed a subpoena. To be clear: a fake-news fact-checking website under the purview of the EU was unwilling to clear up fake news it had produced itself.”

In the European Union’s plan for a Digital Services Act, Brussels legislators are considering fines for social media companies that allow “illicit content” on their sites. Three concrete problems arise from this idea:

  1. Governments have been ambiguous about the exact nature of “illicit content”, i.e. what is illegal speech and what isn’t;
  2. Social media platforms will need to automate content control if they are not even allowed to remove the content after it has been published, which will lead to upload-filters (which cannot distinguish the context);
  3. This system makes social platforms into sheriffs for the intentions of government control.

If governments want to monitor free speech online, they should at least clearly define which content is “illegal”, and then a prosecutor ought to defend the state’s position in a court of law, where the matter can be debated for the public to see. However, making Facebook into the henchmen for the control of online speech is illiberal and defies the purpose of an open society.

Unfortunately, through the suggestion that their company might be regulated and fines, Twitter has already taken action to “fight disinformation.” New Twitter guidelines label government-funded media, taking clear aim at disinformation from sources such as Russia Today. Their consistency is lacking, as they also note: “State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, will not be labeled.” This will only lead to increased frustrations of online users with the integrity and neutrality of both the media outlets and the social media platforms they use.

This article was first published by the Austrian Economics Center.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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