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You Decide – Is Obama’s call for tech firms to be publishers justified?

Obama urges to revise the internet law Section 230 that allows tech companies to operate unregulated, but social media bosses stress it protects free speech.

In a new interview with The Atlantic the 44th US president, Barack Obama, has called for a revision to current laws and regulations that surround the practices of social media tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Big name tech firms are currently protected by an internet law called Section 230, which means they’re not held accountable for the content that is posted on their platforms. Traditional media outlets like newspapers and televised broadcasts must adhere to fact checking and publishing standards that are, at present, not attributed to any social media website.

This has become a growing issue as the public increasingly relies on Twitter and Facebook for day-to-day headlines. You’ll find critics and experts describe our current political climate as the era of ‘fake news’, as many of us are now informed by incorrect articles and unchecked, dodgy echo-chambers via algorithms rather than through established news outlets.

Trump’s recent claims of fraudulent votes and a rigged presidential victory for Joe Biden, despite losing the popular vote by over 5 million, has seen this debate come to a head. Democrats and political commentators have warned that this type of behaviour is an erosion of democracy, and Twitter has begun placing disclaimers underneath Trump’s tweets that continue to push baseless accusations of malpractice.

Tech bosses, meanwhile, are hesitant to go overboard with any Section 230 revisions and maintain that they shouldn’t be treated as publications. Current protections allow for anyone to post anything, giving unprecedented opportunities for user data storage and targeted advertisements that generate substantial amounts of revenue.

These are both major backbones of the standard social media business model, and changing how we communicate at a systematic level would have significant repercussions on user experience. You’d no longer be able to post or converse at whim, for example, which would cause widespread disruption and could further complicate the right to free speech. Moderation of content would no longer be the sole responsibility of tech companies, but instead a legal issue involving the state. So what’s the best move now?

Obama argues that social media sites should be publishers

Speaking to The Atlantic, Obama’s argument for Section 230 revisions is based largely on the idea that social media has damaged our ability to understand what’s true and what isn’t.

He doesn’t ‘hold tech companies entirely responsible’, but does believe they’ve ‘turbocharged’ the divided American voter base by making editorial choices on popular content entirely unregulated. He insists that tech firms are uninterested in fully exploring their influence on democracy and voter opinions, and instead continue to regard themselves as phone and entertainment companies first and foremost. ‘We are entering into an epistemological crisis’, he says.

Obama has plenty of justification for feeling this way. Facebook has routinely been involved in controversies over the last five years regarding false information, harbouring racist and extremist groups, and misusing the private data of its users. Trump’s 2016 election was partly the result of a heavily funded, calculated digital campaign that utilised the platform extremely effectively, alongside Twitter and Reddit. Not much has changed since then.

Third-party companies like the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica are also prime examples of shady external businesses utilising the personal profiles of social media users to deliberately influence elections and democratic decisions. It was involved both with the Brexit vote and the Trump campaign in 2016, creating extremely specific political propaganda to sway different voter demographics based on their data. The result was – obviously – a roaring and unethical success.

We’ve seen these platforms struggle to stop the spread of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic this year too, with false information regarding 5G network towers, mask wearing, and social distance measures all making the rounds across Twitter and Facebook over the summer. Information centres and hubs were introduced to help tackle the issue, but Obama argues these measures are too little too late, and until we rethink how tech companies are lawfully treated we will continue to see this occur again and again.

By making Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit ‘publications’ by law, they’d have to be more rigorous and responsible with content – allowing for safer elections and fewer misinformed voters who may not understand that their political biases are being influenced by algorithms.

Tech companies defend the freedoms of Section 230

There is an equal argument for not transforming social media sites into publications, however.

While Twitter and Facebook are used for news and current events, they’re also tools for communicating with friends and sharing personal information. To boil them down to the same rules as, say, The Guardian or The New York Times wouldn’t adequately cover all of the utilities they offer. It’s impossible to truly police every single status or tweet from users that may be false or unverified and there’s currently no plan in place to truly rework Section 230 in a way that makes logistical sense.

It’s worth noting that Zuckerberg is actually in favour of Section 230 being revised, just not to the extent that it changes the legal standing of Facebook as a public tool of communication. The big tech firms have varying opinions over current laws, and Facebook seems the most open to change, though Zuckerberg still warns that ‘without section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say’ which is unmanageable.

Google and Twitter are more strongly opposed to stripping anything back and are adamant that current systems protect freedom of speech. In a written testimony for a hearing in front of Congress late last month, Google CEO Sundar Pichai cautioned that ‘we should be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers’. Removing advertising models could impact all online trades, regardless of size, and damage the ability for creators to make independent content significantly.

Republicans – including Trump – are eager to see Section 230 revoked, as they argue that right-wing opinions and ideology are censored or suppressed online. These claims are mostly baseless, with no concrete evidence that algorithms favour left leaning content over conservative politics. The real issue is misinformation and echo-chambers of unverified news, rather than any one political agenda.

In fact, revoking Section 230 may be more damaging for the objective flow of online information, as censorship would become a government and federal responsibility. Trump could have potentially had more say over what gets posted and what doesn’t during his presidency, which would have been a drastically different climate to what we’ve become accustomed to.

A question of hypotheticals and theory

It’s difficult to know exactly how best to approach the question of social media transparency and Section 230, as most of the current argument focuses on if we should revise current laws and not how.

It was first written and approved all the way back in 1996, when Jeff Bezos was a plucky start-up underdog and Facebook was eight years shy of launching. Social media platforms have slowly become dominant and influential forces in our daily lives in ways that I doubt any lawmaker could have foreseen 24 years ago, and while the protections we have now allow for complete freedom of speech, they also give way to damaging practices that we’ve seen play out in real time.

Moderation is perhaps the biggest factor in solving this dilemma. We need a way to make sure the content we have access to is fair and balanced, with well cited sources, while also allowing for the continued broadcasting of independent thought and freedom of expression. It’s a delicate legal balancing act and nobody seems to have quite cracked it just yet.

US policy makers are slowly getting closer to a decision, but it doesn’t look like we’ll see any big changes in the immediate future. Obama’s comments will surely add a little momentum, but for now there are a bunch of logistical hurdles and realities to figure out before we can alter current systems at play. Your best bet for keeping sane is always looking for well researched articles, facts, and headlines, and question why you’re seeing the content being presented on your feed.

We’re at the mercy of the algorithms for now, but things may not stay this way forever.


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