One of the biggest debates in tech right now centres on whether social media sites like Twitter and Facebook should be treated the same as publishers. It’s not a new argument but the fire has been stoked again after Twitter recently used it’s new fact-checking labels to mark two of President Trump’s tweets as misleading.
In response, President Trump has signed an executive order that threatens to take away some of the immunities tech companies enjoy under section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. In other words, Twitter, Facebook and other tech firms aren’t yet accountable for what their users post online but they soon could be.
Here are my reactions to the news and what this means for both digital and humans.
1. Freedom of speech is social media’s next major challenge
Trump’s main complaint is that social media platforms are censoring conservative voices, and there have been growing rifts on the left and right because of this.
Freedom of speech – the First Amendment in the US – has become one of social media’s greatest challenges because what one user sees as their birthright, another sees as a breach of guidelines. Do we need to accept that views are becoming more extreme and ask if we can accept that online free speech in 2020 isn’t always kind?
Platforms too will have to acknowledge the role they play in amplifying conspiracies, hate and fake news through systems they’ve set up, which bring us to our next point.
2. Social media platforms have never been more powerful
The speed in which Trump has tried to seize control is very telling about the power of social media platforms currently and their role in public discourse.
It’s true that platforms have never had as much influence over our daily lives, our thoughts and opinions as they do now, and there’s evidence to suggest this has caused reputational damage towards Facebook and Twitter. According to The Verge’s 2020 Tech Survey, 72% of people believe Facebook has too much power. Furthermore, 25% of people surveyed believe Facebook has a negative impact on society and 26% feel the same way about Twitter – it’s 6% for YouTube.
Aside from drawing negativity for different reasons, Facebook and Twitter look like platforms at odds with each other, and this has been exacerbated by recent events.
3. Platform disparities are leading to new echo chambers
One of the most telling parts of this debate is how little Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey agree about the role of social platforms.
Immediately after Trump’s retort, Zuckerberg did an interview with Fox News in which he claimed it’s not Facebook or Twitter’s responsibility to be the arbiter of truth. Hitting back Dorsey, said it’s Twitter’s role to “connect the dots of conflicting statements”.
From a societal point of view, the impact of a splintered social media landscape is that users receive different accounts of the same story. What may appear as truth on Facebook, may have a warning label attached on Twitter.
Along with confusion over what roles platforms should legally play in separating fact from fiction, this can only harm the relationship between tech and humans.
4. Outdated laws are proving a headache for all sides
The ambiguity of section 230 and similar laws is causing further friction between governments and tech giants, neither of which trust the other with future regulation.
On one side of the debate, social media reflects what society shines on it, rather than publishers who set the news agenda and adhere to an editorial code. On the other hand, social media platforms are playing an increasingly editorial role through their algorithms and fact-checking initiatives, which brings about other questions.
While there are grounds to recognise some elements of platforms as publishers, policing a news site is not the same as policing a platform with 2.6 billion users, which suggests we need to stop looking at regulation in such binary terms.
5. Policing free speech, content and fact-checking is in AI’s hands
AI’s ability to moderate at scale is one of the greatest advantages it has over humans, It’s likely that over the next several years, as AI plays a greater role in content moderation, fact-checking and policing, platforms will be more watertight and protected against new content laws, which look set to become more prevalent.
For Dorsey, the future of fact-checking doesn’t rest with the platforms but with open source technology. Individuals having the freedom to, as one Twitter user states, “Take a piece of text, parse it, extract assertions, compare to explicitly specified knowledge graphs and oracles.” In other words, total convergence between tech and humans. Whether that’s possible at scale is another matter.
Kunal Pattany is a public speaker, technology commentator and the founder and CEO of Digital Human. With 15 years’ experience in marketing for leading companies like Kantar, he has turned his attention to the impact of digital and AI on humans and society’s response to innovation. To find out more about Digital Human, click here. To talk with Kunal about speaking opportunities, email [email protected] 👋