JP Observer: When Media is Media: Social media and freedom of speech

       What’s been written and said about free speech and social media lately could fill a server farm.

       Unfortunately, much of the discussion and many disagreements so far are based on fundamental gaps in understanding.

       Kingpins of “social media” platforms tend to be anti the former and ignorant about the latter. They know a lot about digital technology and making money, but that’s not enough to manage a complex media business that’s specifically protected by the Constitution.

       Just because social media uses a new technology to capture and spread information doesn’t mean new principles need to be invented. The fundamental ones we have applied to print and broadcast media for decades mostly work fine. Social media got off to a bad start, but it can be repaired.

       Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook in 2004, began with a misunderstanding that has stuck to all platforms to various degrees. He said from the outset that he and the staff of his social media platform (now “platforms”) would have nothing to do with content. Big mistake. He was young and inexperienced.

       He has had to begrudgingly make exceptions to that since, mostly to prevent people and organizations (or bots and fakes pretending to be them) from posting fraudulent material. He didn’t know that he was becoming a publisher when he began. Apparently, he didn’t think of it, and no one told him. Or he thought just saying he wasn’t in charge of content was enough to absolve himself.

        Just because he and other social media bosses don’t want to take responsibility for content doesn’t mean they can or should get out of it. Doing their job means hiring content managers. And that means spending significant money. They don’t want to do that, surprise, surprise.

       Meanwhile, according to Zuckerberg at a Congressional hearing in March, 2021, his platforms rely on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to spot trouble. “Nuance” and context can be hard for AI, he admitted of his chosen technical solution to his content problems.

       No wonder social media moguls are rich, and their company stock values are high. They have had to pay mostly for technology and ad sales support. Unlike print and broadcast media, their main content comes virtually—pardon the pun—free.

       Also, unlike other media, since 1996, social media hasn’t had to pay for libel insurance or to settle libel suits, for that matter. Section 230 of the Consumer Decency Act (CDA) says that online service providers cannot be held legally responsible for content provided by third parties.

       That’s an absurd but big distinction between social and other media in terms of moderating content right now. Print and broadcast media are held responsible for material that was provided by the public, as well as content created by paid employees and contractors.

       Section 230 needs to be repealed. People should be able to sue Twitter or Facebook or any social media platform if they are libeled in their newsfeeds. Social media outlets should get in trouble for spreading fraudulent material to millions when it’s their fault because they didn’t check well enough or at all. Digital media needs to be treated the same as other media.

       Content moderation—as editing is called in social media—is important for many other reasons than just protecting the company and the public legally. It gives the public confidence about the accuracy of material on the platform. Confidence makes them come back. It may give them confidence in advertisers and vice versa, too. Most important of all, providing material that has been reviewed before it goes public would make for a better-informed public.

       Everyone who posts on social media platforms is doing the owners a favor, though no one mentions it. They are providing a for-profit company with a product to sell without being paid for it.

       Amazing how some people treat social media honchos like they are doing a big public service just by existing. If they are, it is a poorly managed one, enriching businesses and execs in exchange for letting us take the chance that people will see what we post in their newsfeeds and like it. Audiences of unmoderated social media sites risk being told falsehoods by false entities, as well as letting a giant corporation know their preferences and interests to share with companies who want to sell you something.

       Social media should aim to please its viewers and readers instead of focusing so much on making their content providers happy (though they are often the same people). It’s about perspective—and who their advertisers and the Constitution basically care about.

       “Freedom of speech” is what many people, including Elon Musk—the richest man in the world, soon to own Twitter—talk about when discussing social media. What they should promote first is “freedom of the press.”

       Social media are media. Duh. Television and radio were mostly grouped with print media as press soon after those new technologies came into existence. Digital media needs to be added to the bunch in our thinking and standard-setting, the sooner the better.

       The press is the only for-profit enterprise named in and protected by the Constitution. That’s for good reason. The founders knew the public depends on private media for important, accurate information on issues that affect them without interference by government.

       Social media has a public responsibility, but it is NOT to format, distribute and broadcast anything any individual or group wants them to for free. Anyone who thinks that’s what “free speech” means is laughably confused. Can you imagine how long newspapers would be if that’s how they interpreted “free speech?”  TV news programs?

       Musk’s stated “absolutist” view that anyone should be allowed to say anything on Twitter [except when it’s against the law, he added later] is reckless and bizarre, though many people who haven’t thought much about freedom of speech say the same thing.

       According to Britannica, “the main categories of speech not protected from US government restrictions” are: incitement to violence; defamatory lies; fraud (factual falsehoods); obscenity (usually not including vulgar language); child pornography; fighting words; and threats. These need to be weeded out of social media content by management, just as most print and broadcast media try to do.

       As the next billionaire set to control a social media platform, Musk needs to embrace his responsibilities to his audience and oversee all the content, starting with attention to transparency and accuracy. Responsible platform bosses already in the biz need to do the same if they want social media chaos to end. Using the Associated Press Stylebook as a reference would be helpful.

       Nothing illustrates the need for content oversight and social media’s widely different behavior toward it better than the 600+ pages the accused Buffalo grocery store shooter posted on a social media platform called “Discord” over months. Payton Gendron opened his manifesto up to some individuals in his weapons interest group “Plate Land” to read before he began shooting on May 14. He live-streamed the shooting on Twitch for two minutes, until someone there caught it and stopped it. Still, people are showing the clip on Twitter, according to The New Yorker.

       Gendron described on Discord what he planned to do and how he was preparing to do it in detail, mixed with expressions of racist beliefs, according to the Washington Post. A site mostly for various interest groups that lets users protect their “privacy” using fake names and encrypted entries, Discord managers told the New Yorker after the massacre that they had known nothing about the shooter or what he was writing, though they have said they banned more than 2,000 extremist communities “organized around hate” in 2021.

       Gendron also posted a similar manifesto talking about his plans and racist theories on the anonymous message board 4chan, according to the New Yorker.

       Social media management is not availing itself or the public of benefits from the two freedoms the framers intended “press” to protect in the Bill of Rights. Instead, we have chaos overseen by a mish-mash of irresponsible media corporations that have convinced a lot of people that, because they are digital, they don’t have to play by existing rules and commonly understood standards of public discourse.

            Accepting their roles as providers of information and entertainment to the public, social media owners and administrators—as well as their users and the public—need to recognize that they are members of the press whose freedom should be respected only if they live up to their responsibilities to make sure their content contributes to and doesn’t harm society.

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