The Slippery Slope of Regulating Social Media

Speech on Twitter and Facebook should not be treated like a collective good that should be subject to political control.

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The promise of the internet, and social media in particular, was that it would not only allow anyone the opportunity to speak, but would also make it possible for anyone to precisely tailor what he reads, sees and hears online. News and information would no longer be mediated by newspaper editors, television producers and other gatekeepers. Instead, social media would allow direct access to individual voices in a feed custom-built by the user. It was a new frontier for both unregulated free expression and individual control.

In practice, the actual experience of social media, for many users, is not one of control but of virtual bombardment, in which a flood of ideas and opinions that are irritating, dull and often outright offensive often seem impossible to avoid. Yes, you can block, mute, unfollow, log off and even delete your account. But the prevalence of social media — the way in which it has become the mortar of everyday life, filling in the cracks of our time — has a way of enforcing a sense that there is no way to truly escape from its reach. The world of social media increasingly feels as if it is simply the world.

That world 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.

So it’s no surprise that the rise of social media has coincided with calls for restrictions on speech, both online and off, from narrow campaigns to strip Steve Bannon of speaking gigs or get sites to evict alt-right trolls and provocateurs like Alex Jones — who was banned permanently last week by Twitter — and Steve Bannon to more broad-based pushes to regulate big tech platforms at the federal level. The omnipresence of social media has increased demand for limitations on speech.

The feeling of inescapability is amplified by both our politics and our traditional media. Walk into any modern newsroom and you’ll see screen after screen open to Twitter and Facebook. Log onto Twitter on any given weeknight and you can see exactly what journalists are doing with their spare time. Twitter has become an always-on, all-encompassing chat room for political reporters and commentators and the people who follow the news most obsessively.

The sense that social media and the rest of reality have converged is further intensified by President Trump, who spends a lot of time tweeting, which then, of course, causes a feedback loop with the media, which reports on and discusses his tweets, which sometimes lead to additional mini-controversies of their own, and so on and so forth, meaning that a significant fraction of mainstream political journalism consists of reporting and commentary about what people are saying online. Turn on cable news at any given hour of the day, and the odds are reasonably high that you’ll encounter a summary of or argument about what’s happening on social media. It’s Twitter all the way down.

Even for those who aren’t news junkies, the connective power of social media, combined with its habit-forming drips of information and positive reinforcement — all those likes and favorites — can be difficult to avoid entirely, unless you want to become a digital hermit. Yet as anyone who has spent time on social media knows, even feeds built to serve up nothing but pictures of puppies and babies can easily devolve into ugly political arguments.

Social media companies appear to be aware of their growing hold on America’s social and political consciousness, and the likely consequences. “People do see us as a digital public square,” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, recently told members of Congress, “and that comes with certain expectations.” Speaking to senators on the same day, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, seemed to accept that some form of federal oversight was inevitable, saying, “We don’t think it’s a question of whether regulation, we think it’s a question of the right regulation.”

The embrace of regulation is no doubt strategic — an effort to ensure that Facebook can weather any new rules better than potential competitors. Yet even these social media behemoths now appear to view themselves as something like public utilities. The Trump administration, in turn, seems to share that view: Last week, the Justice Department proposed talks with state attorneys general about the practices of large tech platforms.

Given the unanticipated reach and influence of these companies, this view is perhaps understandable. But it is mistaken and even dangerous, because at its core it is a view that speech — the primary use for these platforms — is not an individual right, but a collective good that should be subject to political control.

Combating this perception will entail a return to the original, unmet promise of social media — of a tailored experience that serves up what you want, rather than what you don’t. Blocking, muting, unfollowing and even unplugging should be celebrated. Social media should work for you, not against you. More generally, it will require reinforcing, whenever possible, the notion that it’s not only speech that is an individual right and responsibility — so is listening.

I recognize just how difficult this can be. I’ve spent the better part of my adult professional life online, half-distracted by newsfeeds and endless scrolling updates. In the last year, I’ve dropped off Facebook, taken time away from Twitter, and repeatedly removed (and restored) various social apps from my phone. Even still, I regularly spend entire evenings online, occasionally when I have no reason to do so, and I often fight the urge to cycle through a suite of social media apps on my phone when I’m in between — or in the middle of — tasks. I sometimes worry that Twitter has become a substitute for thought.

Yet social media has also connected me with friends and followers, provided a platform for my work, and provided me access to a wealth of ideas and perspectives that I would never have encountered otherwise. (Sometimes the jokes are pretty good too.) It’s a tool, and like all tools, it must be used with thought and care.

Yes, social media can be abused. Harassment is never acceptable, and if foreign governments are attempting to influence our politics, we should be aware. Social media corporations, as private entities, have the right to ban anyone, for any or no reason.

But all of us, as citizens and individuals and residents of the online world, have a responsibility to manage our own social media consumption, to resist letting it take over their our thoughts, our lives, our culture, and our politics. Social media is only the real world if we let it be.

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