Should Social Media be Regulated: Safeguarding Freedom of Speech and the Press

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Updated: Jun 21, 2023
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If you are reading this paper, I’m positive you have previously encountered social media platforms.

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These platforms show up everywhere, and they have so deeply infiltrated our everyday lives that it is almost impossible to avoid them. This paper isn’t intended to discuss the positives and negatives of social media. It’s not even intended to tell you if you should use social media or not. This paper is intended to present the debate of who should be regulating social media platforms.

Is it the government’s place to step in and tell these companies what is allowed and what’s not? Is it up to the platforms themselves to self-regulate and keep themselves in check? As these social platforms grow and become an even bigger part of our lives, this issue quickly becomes more significant. Throughout this paper, I will be referencing several professionals in the field as supporting evidence to substantiate my personal conclusion. The paper will be broken down into four main parts. The first part will be an overview of the current state of social media. In the second part, I will introduce the debate on social media regulation. The third section will be made up of supporting arguments and a preemptive defense of my thesis. Lastly, the 4th section will summarize the information we covered and conclude the paper. By the end of the paper, I seek to prove to you that governmental regulation of social media platforms puts us on a slippery slope to encroach on citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and press.

The State of Social Media

How does the term’ social media’ make you feel? What sounds like a frivolous question that you might be asked in a bar after a few drinks is actually a profound and powerful one. If you asked someone this question 14 years ago, it would likely have been answered very differently than it is today. Fourteen years ago, Facebook and Myspace were just internet sites to connect with friends and share what you are up to, but now these pages have become the go-to forum for social and political dialogue. Even more, than just a place to host conversations, these pages have worked their way into every aspect of our lives.

From posting your Fitbit daily step count on Facebook or posting pictures of your kids while on your vacation in Mexico, these pages are quickly becoming the one-stop-shop for all of our news and current events. Social media by itself isn’t that marvelous. It’s just a webpage made up of HTML and Javascript coding, but once you couple that with the fact that in 2017, 80% of the world’s population was in some way participating in social media, it becomes a little bit more amazing. This upward trend in social media users in the last several years shows that it’s not just a ‘fad’ or a ‘trend’; social media is, in fact, the new normal. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are quickly taking over the media market that cable TV, talk radio, and newspapers dominated for years.

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool. None of the former media categories were able to connect people on opposite sides of the globe in the same way social media can. Nobody would have ever imagined you could call your Great Aunt Bertha with the newspaper, but now with social media, you can video call your Great Aunt Bertha and broadcast it for anyone in the world to watch. And the most amazing part is: all of this power is accessible by anyone through a little piece of glass that always resides in our pants pockets. We now have access to any piece of information we could ever want with just a couple of swipes with our fingers.

I don’t think anyone would deny the incredible power social media provides, but there are some concerns that need to be addressed. Anytime someone possesses this much power, we as citizens really need to ask ourselves who has control.

Outline of Debate and Thesis

Facebook recently did a study in which they altered and interfered with 689,000 of their member’s news feeds. A large percentage of these people were subjected to only negative posts and articles, while the other half of the group was subjected to only positive content. For the next several months, they analyzed how each person responded to the data they consumed. As you might imagine, the people subjected to negative content, in turn, posted mostly negative content of their own. Inversely, the user subjected to only positive content responded with positive posts and reactions. Most people that read about this study probably wouldn’t be surprised by that outcome, but I did hide one crucial piece of information.

This social experiment run by Facebook was kept completely private for the duration of the test. Not only did Facebook run a social experiment on 689,000 users without their knowledge, but they also left with some extremely powerful and private information. Alfredo Lopez, the head writer for a popular technology magazine, wrote an article about this secret experiment called” Facebook Experiments with Manipulating Your Mind.” In this article, he suggests that Facebook is the modern-day incarnation of the monster depicted in Gorge Orwell’s “1984”. Later in the same article, Lopez states, “Facebook’s infamous “terms of service” allow it to collect and use our personal data as it sees fit. It owns our data when the data is posted on a Facebook page and can do with it whatever it wants.” (Lopez)

If the Internet’s content can affect your feelings, as Facebook demonstrated, then the manipulation of that content can exert powerful social control. So now the question is very simple: who holds the keys to this power? Do we, as users, have the power to control what we see and hear? Do the executives at Google and Facebook have the ultimate authority? Should the government be regulating these social platforms to make sure we, as citizens, aren’t being exploited? This question harkens back to the age-old debate of freedom of speech and the press.

Government regulation of media isn’t a new idea. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has employed many regulations on the content companies can broadcast over the airwaves. They even require media companies to register and continue to renew registration every five years to ensure they meet the current broadcasting guidelines. While this is similar to social media, there is still one large difference. Unlike television broadcasting, social media isn’t just limited to corporate enterprises. Social media is now the host of many social and political conversations that include hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants. A good example of this would be the Recent hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Close to 13 million viewers tuned in on various platforms to watch his hearing unfold live. There were millions of comments, impressions, and opinions voiced in the threads following the hearings. It’s clear that social media has already become a new forum for politics.

If we start to regulate social media with legislation, we start to tread on shaky ground. Peter Suderman talks about this issue in one of his essays when he makes a claim, “The world of social media increasingly feels as if it is simply the world.” He later goes on to add, “That world [social media] is one in which speech is often perceived not as an individual right, but as a public act, in which words and ideas are not your own, but a contribution to the collective.

Social media has, in effect, socialized speech.” (Suderman, 2018) He’s getting at the fact that when we start to look at social media as a public good instead of a new format for communicating thought and opinion, we quickly lose track of the ideals this nation was founded on. The first amendment clearly states,” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This amendment clearly protects us from governmental control of speech and press. This protection shouldn’t end when we open Facebook or Twitter.

The omnipresence of these social platforms only adds to the cry for limitations on speech. The executives of Facebook and Twitter are aware of their growing hold on America’s social and political consciousness. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, recently told members of Congress, “People do see us as a digital public square, and that comes with certain expectations.” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, seemed to accept that some sort of federal oversight of social media was inevitable, saying, “We don’t think it’s a question of whether regulations are necessary or not; we think it’s a question of the right regulation.” Facebook likely believes it will weather these regulations better than some of its competitors, thus giving them some protection, but this is really the wrong way to look at it. These social media behemoths now appear to view themselves as something like public utilities. It’s imperative that we differentiate between the expression of personal views and socialized or homogenous thought. Social media was designed to connect people, and it become vastly more than just that. Now it’s a forum for debate.

Supporting Information

The debate over senatorship is probably one of the biggest reasons we need to be worried about this issue. Social platforms have been left relatively unregulated when compared to other forms of media. Governments have a knack for overreaching and putting their dirty little paws on anything they can get ahold of. The federal law that prohibits the use of marijuana is a perfect example of governmental overreaching. People have the natural right to autonomy over their own being, and this is an infringement on that. But when it comes to media and censoring what people say, we go right back to the first amendment argument. If the government starts to remove posts on social media platforms because of so-called hate speech’ or ‘bullying,’ we are going to have a problem. This would be directly comparable to the police confiscating your sign at a protest. I don’t think any rational person would say they approve of hate speech, but hate speech in and of itself is a subjective term. If we are looking to add regulations to social media, we need these regulations to be applied evenly and fairly. This is why even adding the slightest bit of regulation throws everything into question.

Several months ago, Facebook announced the purging of 800 political pages and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and spamming. These pages immediately contested their removal, and they all had one thing in common. All of these pages were somehow affiliated with extremist views. Now, Facebook does have the right to enforce their community guidelines and whatever else they pass under our noses when we accept their terms of service—but this? This is on a different level. The removal of these pages starts to dance the line of political censorship based on personal views expressed on their platform. This is the kind of selective enforcement we can expect when we look to any party to regulate our media. We run into corporate giants selectively enforcing community guidelines to silence opposing views. Vera Eidelman, a Staff Attorney for the ACLU, goes as far as saying, “If Facebook gives itself broader censorship powers, it will inevitably take down important speech and silence already marginalized voices.” (Eidelman, 2018) If we give the government, or even Facebook, the power to sensor “extreme views” and “hate speech” under the umbrella of keeping its users safe, we can expect to see very selective enforcement. If we hope to preserve democracy, the freedom to express personal views without the threat of censorship is absolutely imperative.

A fairly common argument in favor of government regulation is that we will be able to protect against liberalist material and even extremist media outlets voicing their radical opinions through fake news. Sometimes people even go to the extreme side of the spectrum and suggest that the government might be able to protect us against events like Russia swaying our election process. The answer to this is both simple and complex at the same time. While it may help weed out some of these extremists, government regulation of social media would be a cure far worse than the disease. Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Counsel and a professor at Georgetown University, was interviewed in response to Russia flooding US social media sights with bots during the 2016 election. In his interview aired on CNN, he stated:

The tardy and inadequate reactions by Facebook and Twitter show they are neither interested in nor capable of pursuing self-regulation. Our discussion should not be about whether they should be regulated but how. Drawing on the current regulation of press and broadcast media, some regulations are obvious, while others may need further consideration. (Åslund, 2017)

You can see that in some people’s minds, the question isn’t “Should we regulate social media.” It’s how we should regulate social media. Åslund suggests that we just include social media in the current regulations placed on other forms of digital and print media. While this idea might help to keep the bots on these social platforms in check, we also create a gatekeeper. We hand over the reins from the social platforms themselves to the government. While this isn’t inherently a negative thing, it’s something we need to think about very carefully. The question we need to be asking ourselves is: is it worth trading our personal privacy for the absence of fake news and bots? Some people may answer ‘yes’ to that question. A common response is, “I’m fine with the government being in control,” or “I don’t have anything to hide.” This is the wrong position to take! Ronald Regan, the former US president, once said, “As government expands, liberty contracts.” If we flippantly give away our constitutional rights under the umbrella of protection, the government will continue to take all the slack we have.

We have our heads in a noose, and we are offering government officials to tighten it just a little bit more. Our democratic system is based on the promise of freely expressing our personal views, and if we hand this right away, our society will quickly shift into a culture of socialized thought. This conversation is monumental in light of the upcoming political decisions that will soon need to be made. The next presidential election will include kids born in 2002. Let’s think about that for a second. These are the kids that have been using the Internet since before they could tie their shoes. When they look to social media to express their opinions and research potential candidates, we need to guarantee that their voices will be heard. Not a collective voice but an individual voice. This is why social media needs to remain free.

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Should Social Media be Regulated: Safeguarding Freedom of Speech and the Press. (2023, Jun 21). Retrieved from