Should Social Media Companies Be Treated Like Traditional Media At This Point?



The rise of social media as a platform where people can voice out their opinions happened suddenly and unexpectedly. One minute, someone's only source for the news was traditional media, like TV, the radio, and newspapers. The next thing you know, the internet's a thing and everyone's talking about everything on it. Media sources increased exponentially, but the new media was treated differently.

Let's look at this in the American context, since that's what got me thinking about this. In the US, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is a provision that protects social media companies with protection, especially legal protection, not given to traditional media, on third-party content. Section 230(c)(1) states "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider," while 230(c)(2) is the Good Samaritan clause stating that social media companies would receive "protection from civil liability... in the removal or moderation of third-party material they deem obscene or offensive, even of constitutionally protected speech."

This Section allows social media companies to prevent being sued for potentially sensitive or offensive content someone posts on their platforms, partially because they're private enterprises, not state bodies. That's all good. But an issue arises when you look at it in terms of the way these companies are performing functions even a state body can't perform. Like removing content or what some may take to the extreme as labeling "censorship".

The First Amendment to the US constitution restricts state bodies from harming freedom of speech in the country. State bodies thus don't have the power to remove or restrict speech or public content because of this. But private social media companies do, and they can do so without being held accountable legally. State bodies don't have this power, and traditional media doesn't have the same legal protection, leaving Big Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter in a uniquely privileged position. This position can be alarming when you think these companies can singlehandedly begin to influence the content available to people online, especially if they have a social or political agenda they want to promote.

Look at a recent electoral issue, for instance. During the recent US Presidential campaign, a New York Post article implicating Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, surfaced on social media, which would have proved bad for Biden's election campaign. When the article came up, Twitter took a really hard stance against it, going so far as to not even let people share the article with each other in private chat. By doing so, Twitter restricted the content available to the public that could have made a difference in their voting preferences. Even if it didn't make a difference, it would still help people make an informed decision. Twitter could escape being sued for this because of Section 230, but in many ways, it acted unconstitutionally. Additionally, a newspaper company or TV broadcaster may not be able to get away with something similar.

This next part is more speculation, but we've seen Instagram do something similar. I remember when the Kashmir issue, the Palestine issue, and the Sudan crisis were resurfacing around 2019 onwards and there were major social media movements about them, I would see very few stories at the top on Instagram that were talking about these issues, even though everyone I knew was posting about them. For instance, look at this article: https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/5/11/instagram-twitter-blame-glitch-for-deleted-sheikh-jarrah-posts. Or look at how an Instagram account, @brownhistory, was taken down during the pandemic after posting about the Palestine issue. In contrast, with the pandemic and BLM, you saw stories and posts about them constantly on all these platforms. Such stuff happens very frequently and has led to many thinking social media companies are unduly censoring political content. This has important implications and begs the question that maybe social media companies are taking on state action and starting to act more like traditional media just because they have protection. And if they're doing so, they should not have the protection that state bodies and traditional media both lack.

The bottom line is that if traditional media like newspapers can't get away with political bias, social media should also maybe not be able to get away with it.

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