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Free Minds & Free Markets

Beware the Press’s Self-Serving Calls to Regulate Social Media

Demands for government oversight hide opportunism amid rhetoric about safety.

Censorship buttonJakub Jirsák / Dreamstime.comIn the states and abroad, policymakers and commentators are salivating over the opportunity to regulate social media content. It is easy to understand why governments might want to have more influence on social media platforms. But the legacy media's consistent push for more controls on platforms like Facebook and Twitter has been less scrutinized. There is a reason for this consilience: these policies can ultimately serve as a government-granted privilege that favored media firms use to get an edge over their competition.

It may sound a little roundabout. It doesn't take a short-sighted partisan to have serious problems with a lot of social media practices. For instance, tech platforms have collaborated, willingly or not, with governments in surveillance and social conditioning campaigns. Then there's the spectral but speculated upon creation of "shadow profiles" that are only discernable through their algorithmic residue.

But don't be fooled: Some parties who trot out these more reasonable pretexts for enhanced tech scrutiny do so for opportunistic reasons.

Consider the recent campaign by media outfits in the United Kingdom to crack down on social media platforms.

In early September, the leaders of some of the top media conglomerates across the pond—including the BBC, Sky, ITV, and Channel 4—wrote a strong letter to The Sunday Telegraph urging the government to intervene to counteract "all potential online harms, many of which are exacerbated by social media."

There are a variety of proposals on the table, and these media leaders specifically suggested that a government oversight board could be created to monitor and manage social media platforms. But whatever the final form, it is clear to them that Something Must Be Done. After all, they "do not think it is realistic or appropriate to expect internet and social media companies to make all the judgment calls about what content is and is not acceptable, without any independent oversight."

Sound ironic? The same media companies who would rightly howl at the suggestion that a government oversee their "judgement calls about what content is and is not acceptable"—A.K.A. delivering news—self-righteously call to impose these rules on a competing industry without a second thought. They may cloak their self-interested campaign in the rhetoric of "safety," but so do opponents of the free press.

It is no secret that the rise of social media has caught many in the traditional media industry flatfooted. The unfortunate demise of many austere news houses is cliché to the point of being a frequent presidential punching bag, and the digitization of information has absolutely driven that trend. Adding insult to injury, the advertising infrastructure that used to prop up traditional journalism has likewise become "optimized," prompting journalists' futures to be driven by the algorithmic whims of a perhaps too easily bamboozled public. I'd be mad about this state of affairs, too.

But this does not justify privilege-seeking. It is easy to see how enhanced government control of the means of information distribution could have the happy effect of shoring up the positions of traditional media outlets. Any kind of controls that slow down the rate of information distribution could do this. Even better—the oversight board could be staffed by current or former members of the established press. After all, who better than they to determine what content is in the public interest? And perhaps it just so happens that their current or former institutions happen to be the most trustworthy, and therefore the most often allowed on social media platforms… .

Society is always made worse off overall when specific industries are protected by the government. But this state of affairs is all the more frightening when the relevant industry concerns a factor so vital to governance as delivering the truth.

The situation is similar in the United States, as last week's spectacle on Capitol Hill suggests. Here, as in the United Kingdom, many media outlets harbor grudges against social media platforms for their effects on the news industry and public opinion.

But there are key institutional differences that change the calculus.

The freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right in America, but not in the U.K. Even though social media platforms are private companies, the cultural respect of free speech is jealously guarded here, and that influences people's opinions on proper policy responses. Perhaps the cultural antibodies against violations of free speech are simply weaker in the U.K. Alternatively, perhaps Americans will misdirect our love of free speech into supporting public utility regulations on social media platforms that also violate the speech rights of social media platforms.

At the end of the day, media companies—vaunted though their profession may be in some circles—are still companies. And many of them are very big and very powerful. Some who call for social media oversight may truly have earnest motives. But surely all of them do not, and we should not allow the halo of "the press" to cloud our scrutiny of what may be simply an ugly business move.

Photo Credit: Jakub Jirsák / Dreamstime.com

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    This is a war of Propaganda and the MSM wants to win.

  • SQRLSY One||

    If it is not MY news written by MEEEE, then it is FAKE NEWS, and must be shut down!

    (But it is for YOUR Greater Good, of course).

  • Priscilla King||

    Exactly.

  • Rockabilly||

    The old farts want to make it harder for upstarts to compete.

  • Jerryskids||

    If the professionals to be writing for me the assignment of the homework, the professionals are to please be using the better of the language Enklish for to I not be getting the poorlish grading.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    "Enklish" -- I like that, I may borrow it when discussing media euphemisms.

    These spam writers are getting better at writing faux-robotic spam-bot parodies.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "Some who call for social media oversight may truly have earnest motives."

    Indeed. And their earnest motives, should they talk honestly to us, are greed and self-righteousness.

  • Longtobefree||

    More than greed and self-righteousness, I would argue their motive is political power, and through that, control of our lives.

  • Jerryskids||

    Demands for government oversight hide opportunism amid rhetoric about safety.

    And that subhed fits about half the articles here on Reason, it's sort of the go-to argument for crony capitalists and would-be authoritarians all across the board.

    "Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Daniel Webster

  • I can't even||

    Notice the fight is over regulation, not privacy? Congress could act to protect users' privacy and then leave the whole thing to the market.

    Fuck them all.

  • MoreFreedom||

    Right - social media platforms make their money by telling advertisers and politicians where we stand so their ads are more effective, and help lying politicians design their messages to win (regardless of their real intentions). But I also agree with those pointing out it's a financial battle between establishment MSM and these upstarts.

    As a libertarian, I'd suggest you just not use Google, Facebook, or Twitter. There are better alternatives such as duckduckgo.com for internet searches. Using email thru your ISP, and rather than posting for the world - just email to your friends. There's a lot more privacy there. Besides, it seems a lot of conservatives are blocking pollsters given their track record of overstating the probability of liberals and big money RINOs winning elections. All their big money ad spending, seems to be registering as a measure of their willingness to sell out voters, rather than providing believable political messages. Then, politicians have a track record of not voting for or not producing what they promised.

  • Horny Lizard||

    Are you supposed to drink coffee before or after you brush your teeth? There's no good answer but I'm willing to listen.

  • Horny Lizard||

    The answer is to make coffee flavored toothpaste.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "Are you supposed to drink coffee before or after you brush your teeth? "

    It varies day by day. Democracy = freedom now, so here is your answer...

    EVERY MORNING, this question must be put up for a popular vote, and then, when The Majority Has Spoken, WE MUST ALL OBEY!!!!

  • SQRLSY One||

    Also I want to know, are we supposed to chew tobacco before, during, or after French Kissing?

    Inquiring minds want to know, dammit!!!

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    I thought we agreed to call it Freedom Kissing?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Hey y'all, more seriously now...

    We have laws against libel and slander already, and now we want to add laws against "fake news"...

    If I say that The Donald has slept with 10,000 porn stars, by RAPING them ALL, and paying each one of them a billion dollars of hush money, I can be sued for libel and slander, and maybe now a third offense.

    If I simply preface it with IN MY HUMBLE OPINION, The Donald has slept with 10,000 porn stars, etc...

    THEN the court (judges juries lawyers) are put in the very tenuous position of "proving" what is or is not in my mind... WTF?!??! Would this approach work, and if not, why now, for all you lawyers out there?

  • Don't look at me.||

    You are not allowed to have opinions that don't fit the narrative.

  • Otto Didact||

    "You are not allowed to have opinions that don't fit the narrative."

    DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING!
    PAY the man!!!

  • sarcasmic||

    During.

  • GoatOnABoat||

    Before, during, after... doesn't matter, it's your right to freely choose! You got me thinking though... coffee-flavored toothpaste, there could be a market for it.

  • sarcasmic||

    "Tired of being accosted by attractive people who want to have sex with you? Try 'Worst... Breath... Ever...' Coffee-Flavored Tooth Paste! Our patented formula makes your breath smell so terrible that all of those potential fuck-mates will run away screaming! 'Worst... Breath... Ever...' uses coffee-burst technology to make the disgusting smell of stale coffee linger in your mouth for hours! No longer will you have to shoo away those annoying people soliciting free sex! Exhale once in their direction and they will disappear faster than a mouse fart in an wind storm! You can have this amazing new product for the low price of just $19.99! But wait! Call now and you'll receive not one, but TWO..."

  • Shirley Knott||

    Works best when used with the new Cigarette Flavor mouthwash.
    Who doesn't want to kiss a coffee cup that has had an ashtray rinsed into it?

  • sarcasmic||

    Who doesn't want to kiss a coffee cup that has had an ashtray rinsed into it?

    My ex wife?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Brush your teeth once a week, like Sarcasmic does to avoid this problem.

  • sarcasmic||

    My bad breath can be fixed. Sadly for you, you can't fix stupid.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I almost am sad that we cannot fix YOUR stupid or YOUR breath.

  • sarcasmic||

    Oh, look. The retarded child still thinks "I'm rubber and you're glue!" is original. So sad.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    A dum-dum like YOU would think it is.

    Your sadness is Legend.

  • sarcasmic||

    Calling me a lolly pop? Homo.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Poor angry Anarchist. Dishes it, but cannot take it.

  • Longtobefree||

    How will this change if the Republicans include control of 'legacy' publishing as well as the web? How will the NYT editorialize when the same legislation that addresses social media banning also requires them to carry articles about Trump's economy?
    All for the children, of course.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Easy. They seem to honestly believe that freedom of the press specifically protects legacy media, not anything else much. Which is how the NYT can be on the side of "corporations have no rights", despite being a corporate entity themselves.

  • Mickey Rat||

    They should not, but scorpions will do as scorpions do.

  • Brian||

    I interpret "the press" as "only people like me." That way, I get to do whatever I want while I figure out what to do with you

    That's what I call "freedom."

    Anyway, these media people better tread carefully or it won't be long until someone's saying "what does 'freedom of the press' really mean?

    Because the next thing you know, it will mean whatever the government says it means, because democracy.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Journalists shouldn't be calling for gun control, either. But they're not robots, they're people who have biases, emotions and a need to protect their own industry from competition. That's why the things they report shouldn't be taken on faith.

  • Brian||

    It's silly how the media will bluntly, explicitly come out and say that freedom of the press only applies to them, that they alone convey the critical facts necessary for the public to make informed public policy decisions, and that we should regulate other speech such that the media's message is free of competition and undiluted, allowing for the right voting decisions, and so that democracy produces the correct outcomes with the best policies.

    And when someone points out that this perspectively clearly involves a bias towards value judgements as well as facts, they start screaming "how dare you!"

    Well, I'd be more ashamed if I was more wrong.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Going back to the colonial era, Americans destroyed printing presses and physically attacked newspaper editors who were believed to be subverting the local community. The press, for decades, operated in an de jure partisan manner (as opposed to the de facto manner it currently operates), and made the term "yellow journalism" a feature of turn of the century American life up through World War II. Nor did these papers take the concept of "ethics" seriously when it came to leveraging their influence--in Denver, the Denver Post during its early years was notorious for digging up dirt on local politicians and businessmen, then blackmailing them into buying advertising or simply outright bribing the Post into hiding the stories or ending any critical coverage that might be taking place.

    This idea that the media is some sort of sacrosanct institution that epitomizes integrity isn't rooted in any historical fact, it's a pretension of the post-WW2 era when a national and civic consensus existed, and the country was far more racially and culturally homogenous. It's not a pretension that's going to last long in a country that is currently as polarized as ours, especially when J-schools are deliberately crafting curriculums to radicalize their graduates towards "woke" journalism.

  • losmazeman||

    Nicely done.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    +1

  • Conchfritters||

    The unfortunate demise of many austere news houses is fucking awesome. Let them die if they can't keep up.

  • John||

    The social media companies are run by leftist assholes who would do real harm to the world and the country if they could. They deserve to be regulated. That said, regulation creates a lot of hazards of its own. Ultimately, I think people way overrate the importance of these companies. I would be surprised if Twitter has ten million no kidding American users and if more than 20% of those are frequent ones. Twitter seems more important than it is because journalists are addicted to it and being stupid and provincial think Twitter must be the most important thing in the world. It's not. And getting censored by or kicked off of Twitter doesn't mean a damn thing. Twitter shadow bans the hell out of Scott Adams and Jordan Peterson. Those two somehow seem to be doing okay.

    Unless it is on the darkweb, even Google can't keep you from finding something if you want to find it. And everyone knows Google is an evil company that will censor anything the Chinese or the SJW mob de jour tells them to censor. For even a company as powerful as Google to have a real effect, the public can't be in on the con and think the results are genuine. That is simply not true.

    This too shall pass and will sort itself out. No regulation needed.

  • TxJack 112||

    Any calls to regulate social media is wrong but one cannot argue that companies such as Facebook have not become political entities by controlling what a person sees when using the app. The only regulation that needs to exist is the labeling of such as actions a political in-king donations. If managing content to support a particular candidate or cause was labeled as an in-kind donation and therefore limited the amount companies could contribute in campaigns, they would stop. The much larger problem with social media is it has lowered the IQ of this entire country. People read moronic and insane posts online and accept it a gospel truth without an ounce of investigation. Purveyors of this stupidity like Alex Jones have made a fortune peddling garbage, in the sense that much of what he claims is nothing more than his opinion and has no evidence to support any of it, yet it is accepted by millions as fact everyday. The very same argument can be made about sites such as Media Matters or the Daily Kos, both of which post as moronic and insane crap as Jones, but they have not been banned by any social network site.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Anti-Trust actions against these companies is the key.

    Companies should not be regulated hardly at all as government wrecks innovation and costs US workers jobs.

    Anti-Trust is a great way to keep companies from getting into the business of monopolies and collusion to box out competition.

    Google is boxing out competitive speech while simultaneously supporting MSM speech on its platform.

    As long as Trump cannot box out competing complaints on his private Twitter account, Twitter cannot box out competing political views.

    Anti-Trust is a great way to bust up crony capitalists and make way for companies that want to make money without sucking from the government's teats.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    That's not how any of that works, asshat.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Poor troll knows that's how it works and it threatens Lefty-dom.

  • buybuydandavis||

    This is Congress' fault

    Internet companies were given a special legal exemption from usual publishing law, with the legal privileges of publishers to control content but only the liability of a common carrier that must take all comers

    End the exemption
    Social media will immediately act as a common carriers

    If people want filtering, they will do it by choosing who they want to listen to
    Like phones

  • dxh@yahoo.com||

    No need to CENSOR them, just declare them to be common carriers and under the regulation of the FCC.

    In fact, make EVERY site and platform on the internet that allows users to post content, declare themselves to either be common carriers(open to all and subject to regulation) or publishers(responsible for the content).

    Corporations are entities which are creations of the government and are granted special legal privileges and powers via government granting them a corporate charter which bestows those special privileges on them. They are not "PRIVATE BUSINESSES", they are government creations and effectively work for the government under their charter. As soon as the become a corporation they lose any right to claim to be a "private businesses", and deserve zero of the rights of a private citizen or a private entrepreneur or partnership of private citizens.

    Anyone who yells "these are private businesses" is an idiot and a fool who is not thinking for themselves and just accepts what everyone tells them because 'its always been that way'.

  • Priscilla King||

    Anyone who's serious about safety would leave content to find its own level (how hard is it to tell a blogger's personal opinion from the Encyclopaedia Britannica?) and focus on regulating the spyware.

  • vek||

    As mentioned above, the thing with these companies is that we don't need any new laws... We only need to properly apply those that already exist.

    They're either open platforms where they are not responsible for what is published... Or they're publishers. If they want to be publishers, they will lose their protections for copyright violations etc. This is what they really are with the level of control they're exhibiting. I suspect they would choose to stop censoring people if the law were properly applied to them so they could retain their safe harbor provisions.

    Likewise with in-kind contributions. If Facebook denying conservatives ads, while allowing their Democratic opponent to run ads, isn't a slanted in-kind contribution I don't know what is! NAIL THEM FOR IT.

    Google slanting search results might be a tougher case, but laying down the law where it does clearly apply might be enough to make companies re-think their overall strategy of slanting... If they have to choose between making billions and billions in profits, or going up against the US government, drawing public ire from half the country, and potentially risking all that cash... Maybe they'll decide to just forgo their political games.

  • vek||

    Whatever the case, this is potentially an existential problem, and if it was WELL CRAFTED, which is no guarantee, I might even be okay with anti-trust cases or special legislation.

    The NAP is a general purpose rule, but every rule has its exceptions. In the 21st century allowing nearly 100% of the flow of information to controlled by a hand full of companies is too sketchy a prospect to let stand if they're known to be slanted. If they're playing fair, then fine. But they've all been caught red handed over, and over, and over again trying to manipulate things their direction.

    It's just too big a risk, and a simple law that said "No speech may be censored on any social media website, or online public forum with more than 1 million users (to protect the little guy) provided that speech is legal under US law" would not be too big an abridgement of their freedom considering the potential scope of the problem.

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