6.4.2.8 Censorship of Internet Social Media

More than half of the world’s population has access to the Internet.  As revealed by answers to the question How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?, the average Internet user spends more than two hours a day on social media: reading or creating content for others to read.  Facebook, Twitter, WeChat and Instagram each have more than a billion users.  With this size of audience, it is not surprising that advertisers are interested in gaining access to people who might become customers – and these companies are funded by advertising revenue.

Politicians, and others who wish to influence the course of politics, now advertise on Internet social media.  These advertisements are scattered among the huge amount of content that people put up when communicating with their families, friends and neighbours.  Some of those who post on social media can hide their identities, and they can be located anywhere in the world, so much of what people read cannot be held to account in the same way as traditional media. 

The US elections in 2016 were influenced by Russia, as admitted by some big Internet companies in a subsequent investigation reported in The Guardian: Tech giants face Congress as showdown over Russia election meddling looms.  It is not surprising that many governments want to regulate the big Internet companies, to prevent foreign interference as well as the spread of misleading information such as fake news.  The Economist has expressed concerns over governments that try to prevent free speech, though: Censorious governments are abusing “fake news” laws.  And freedom of speech is a difficult topic which recurs in many places in this book, as can be seen from its free speech index.

A BBC article, Social media: How might it be regulated?, describes some of the options being considered.  These include: requiring social media companies to remove harmful, misleading or false content when this has been reported; allowing algorithms to be inspected for harmful bias; and preventing the very rapid spread of stories until they have been fact-checked. 

If social media companies regulate what is published on their platforms, they are seen as wielding powers of censorship – which is problematic.  This dilemma was recognised when Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, after his use of the platform helped to create the conditions for a riot: as reported in a BBC article: Twitter boss: Trump ban is ‘right’ but ‘dangerous’

It is important to allow people to criticise a government – and the importance of free speech is described at the end of this chapter (6.8.3).  Censorship of Internet social media risks suppressing free speech, but democracy (or any form of government) can suffer if lies are allowed to spread unchecked.  Spreading misinformation is different from legitimate criticism, and politicians shouldn’t be able to win elections or provoke riots just by lying.

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