This was bound to happen — Russia meddles in our elections, and members of Congress and others call for increased regulations of the social media networks used to spew false messages.
It was the basis of a congressional hearing in fall 2017, and the talk has continued — stirring a dialogue about whether regulation is appropriate, whether it’s a violation of First Amendment rights, and whether effective regulation could even be accomplished in a way that doesn’t completely squash what makes social media a pretty effective mechanism for community engagement.
Those on the side of regulation give some compelling suggestions. Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced legislation to compel social media companies to track and report on political advertising, holding social media companies to the same rules as traditional media companies. Facebook itself said it is hiring 10,000 people to weed out fake news and the like. And Roger McNamee — co-founder of Elevation Partners and an early investor in Facebook, Google and Amazon – suggested in the Guardian that we treat social media in a manner analogous to tobacco and alcohol — combining education and regulation.
“For the sake of restoring balance to our lives and hope to our politics,” he said, “it is time to disrupt the disrupters.”
But it’s important to first note that social media networks are not news outlets. Sure, they are used by individual and organizations to disseminate information, just as they’re used to showcase funny memes and photos of kids in Halloween costumes. And yes, they have the power to influence through messaging, including political rants from those inside and outside of government and even recruitment tactics from extremist groups. But again, these are not news outlet. (The internet has in fact made legitimate news more difficult to track down, but I’ll save that for another column).
For all the concern about manipulation, consider how social media is used by government agencies — the more progressive ones specifically — to engage with citizens, improve services and promote transparency. NASA has almost 28.6 million followers on Twitter. SpaceX’s own 6.5 million followers pales in comparison. CDC used a hashtag — #VaxWithMe — to encourage people to get vaccinated. (It also created the 2011 Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide, just to get folks interested. It worked.) And FEMA uses all forms of social media to filter out messages during emergency situations, crowdsource photos from the public during disasters, and promote its new TED Talks-style events to brainstorm emergency response tactics.
I don’t share such examples to imply that any of them would stop with increased regulation of social media. Being cognizant of the risks is always important, and the companies themselves bear some responsibility for this. But government regulation does create a slippery slope that has the potential to water down the power of these networks while also creating a chilling effect among the very individuals and organizations that make it so powerful — those that recognize how these mediums foster community and can be a tool for communication and engagement. They are by definition only powerful if they continue to represent the perspective of the masses.
We’re seeing efforts in government to overcome some of the hurdles that agencies have long faced when trying to enable progress from within. Those efforts, if successful, just might help rid government of its reputation as a bureaucratic, stuffy institution that doesn’t understand the needs of the very people that it serves.
So should we now take away or manipulate a tool from the toolbox that could help accomplish that mission?
What will silence those that attempt to manipulate social media is not regulation, but the users themselves. We see it with Wikipedia, when someone tries to create a fake entry or incorporate false information. We even see it now on Twitter, when people try to fan the flames of racial tensions with fake posts tied to the release of the movie blockbuster Black Panther.
Now that power users know these networks can be manipulated, they will work even harder to finger and squash the trolls. They already are. But overregulate those networks and the very individuals that have the power to weed out the bad players will pack up and go home.