As a means for increasing the potential for nuanced and informed conversation, social media can be the key for society’s continued advancement. There’s this amazing potential that platforms like Facebook and Twitter represent, and then there’s the propagandistic reality.
What often gets branded as news on these websites is little more than pointed bias or conspiratorial musings. This is not to say that social media utterly lacks ethical journalism. What social media does lack is any way to distinguish between fact and fiction besides the user’s own discretion.
On Feb. 26, Twitter announced it was permanently suspending the account of Jacob Wohl, a prominent online hoaxer and far-right political supporter, following an interview in USA Today where Wohl admitted to intentions of creating fake accounts in order to manipulate the votes in the 2020 presidential election. Wohl stated that he planned “to steer the left-wing votes in the primaries to what we feel are weaker candidates compared with Trump.”
This isn’t the first time Wohl has gotten in trouble for his actions online. He’s been accused of creating fake identities to make baseless claims about Robert Mueller sexually harassing women, but under his own account, he’s made equally outlandish claims about Rep. Ilhan Omar marrying her brother, questioned Sen. Kamala Harris’ eligibility for presidential election and started rumors about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s secret death.
Although Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision to suspend Wohl’s account was commendable, Wohl doesn’t seem perturbed by his suspension in any sense. “I’m going to continue to own their platform and make them useful to me so it doesn’t really matter to me, to be honest,” Wohl said in response to his suspension.
Anxieties about the role of social media in politics are still high following the 2016 presidential election, where Cambridge Analytica, a political consultant for the Trump Campaign, gained personal political information from Facebook through questionable methods and fake accounts were used by Russian meddlers to impersonate American voters. It’s become clear that social media is a far more imposing medium than those who use it to watch videos of babies cuddling with puppies first assumed.
In his April 26 testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied an active censoring of conservative speech on his website. “It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive,” Zuckerberg said. Some legislators hold a bipartisan fear that “positive connections” is a code for censored rhetoric. Still, other legislators believe government-sanctioned regulations are becoming a necessity as social
media continues to grow.
The threat of social media doesn’t only pertain to the U.S. In 2018, the Turkish government suspended more than 200 social media accounts accused of terrorism. That’s one of the major problems in regulating social media — the internet is both difficult to define and a daunting task for any one state seeking to regulate the activities of its own citizens.
We’ve reached a point where it seems irresponsible to shirk social media regulations any further, but the question remains—how do we regulate these websites without limiting free speech, and is there a way to regulate social media without government involvement? As the 2020 election approaches and the consequences of the 2016 election continue to play out, the responsibility to regulate social media sites can no longer fall on the sites themselves. But, the responsibility can’t fall solely on the government, either. Just imagine the authoritarian possibility of every Twitter user being mandated to follow the President.
Third party companies should be formed as groups of unbiased fact checkers to flag and suspend fake accounts, inflammatory rhetoric and accounts that spread misinformation. Mark A. Cohen, the CEO of Legal Mosaic, argued that this “filter” group should consist of a team of lawyers. Cohen likens social media to an unregulated courtroom, and he positions lawyers as the guardians of legal action.
To those who still question the need for regulation in social media, I’d remind you of philosopher Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them,” Popper said.
The sad truth is it’s nearly impossible to find a viral social media feed that lacks inflammatory or hateful speech these days. Rational discourse has failed, so it’s time we delegate social media regulation to a group that can actually keep the forums clear of hate and misinformation.
Michael Frank is a 23-year-old political science and English senior from New Orleans, Louisiana.