Free speech and social media: Reset the debate

Updated on May 04, 2022 08:41 PM IST

It is clear that even if “free speech” was an article of faith for social media platforms, it has now evolved into a justification for a lucrative business model that privileges user engagement over information quality

Platforms have carte blanche to decide what content they want to host and distribute. However, since all major social media platforms were based primarily in the United States (US), their content moderation policies drew upon American First Amendment principles (HT FILE PHOTO) PREMIUM
Platforms have carte blanche to decide what content they want to host and distribute. However, since all major social media platforms were based primarily in the United States (US), their content moderation policies drew upon American First Amendment principles (HT FILE PHOTO)
ByRuchi Gupta

Social media platforms achieved unbridled growth by adopting a laissez faire approach to user-generated content. This approach was underpinned by legislative frameworks around the world which sought to indemnify content hosting internet intermediaries from liability arising out of user-generated content. At the same time, as private companies, social media platforms have the freedom to decide what content they want to host. This freedom is reflected in differential content standards across different platforms and differential application of standards for the same piece of content.

Platforms have carte blanche to decide what content they want to host and distribute. However, since all major social media platforms were based primarily in the United States (US), their content moderation policies drew upon American First Amendment principles (which prohibit government from curtailing free speech, among other freedoms) to restrict only narrowly defined categories of content. Platforms have similarly sought recourse to First Amendment free speech principles to reject calls for an interventionist approach towards misinformation. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are all on the record stating their aversion to being the “arbiters of truth” and that the platforms should be a marketplace of ideas.

Taken at face value, these platforms’ proclivity towards “free speech” seems not just reasonable, but laudable. However, it can be argued that, for social media platforms, “free speech” is a business model instead of a principled imperative. It is evident that a hands-off approach to speech is operationally simpler since content moderation is not just complex but also politically fraught. Moreover, important high-profile content moderation decisions by platforms are often ad hoc and driven by external pressure — especially government, media, and public relations — instead of coherent speech policies. Further, platforms have been known to take down or block content (including critical political speech) based on government requests while also making exceptions for powerful users linked to the government and its affiliates.

Most importantly, platforms have opportunistically used “free speech” and the protection against liability for intermediaries to advance their business models. Traditional news media is liable for published content and must thus invest time and resources to vet information before publishing. Platforms compete with traditional news publishers for advertising revenue while enjoying the double advantage of speed (to get content to users) and protection from liability (for unvetted content). Since, advertising revenue is directly proportional to the amount of time users spend, platforms have exploited this twin advantage to boost user engagement without caring about the deleterious impact of a surfeit of misinformation on the information ecosystem and wider democracy.

Social media platforms keep users engaged by constantly keeping their feeds populated with new content from sources and content creators that the user has not proactively followed. This deliberate boost to the organic reach of a subset of content by the platforms is known as “amplification”. Since quality and value-based amplification is difficult due to the challenge of determining “quality” and “value”, platforms rely on amplification based primarily on engagement signals.

This approach absolves platforms of the need to exclude vast swathes of bad content while remaining value agnostic and avoiding charges of editorial control. Since hateful and polarising content gets more engagement (as admitted by platforms themselves), this value-neutral and engagement-driven approach is resulting in amplification of misinformation and other harmful content.

It is this turbocharged distribution through social media platforms, which has made misinformation and propaganda invasive and pervasive. These platforms have further elided the distinction between different sources of information which has removed an important signal of credibility and ideological positioning of the consumed content. Instead, engagement is perceived to be a bigger driver of the importance — and by extension — credibility of a piece of news.

This equal treatment (appearance and placement of different and unequal sources of information) and making virality instead of quality the primary determinant of a source’s credibility and/or a piece of content’s importance has eroded the distinction between vetted information, propaganda and misinformation in the minds of the user. The impact is acute in India because platforms have de-facto control over the distribution of the message combined with low-digital literacy among users.

It is a testament to the efficacy of the lobbying efforts of social media platforms that instead of focusing on the amplified distribution of misinformation, the discourse has exclusively framed measures to reduce misinformation as being in “tension” with freedom of expression, an issue which can arise only in the case of outright removal. Moreover, since platforms are private companies, the issue even in the case of outright removal of content, is not freedom of speech but political neutrality of the platform. The degree of permissiveness for misinformation, hate speech, etc is thus a political and/or commercial choice by the platforms.

It is clear that even if “free speech” was an article of faith for social media platforms, it has now evolved into a justification for a lucrative business model that privileges user engagement over information quality. Moreover, the platform-fuelled binary between misinformation and free speech is a red herring designed to obfuscate platforms’ role in the distribution and amplification of misinformation. The first step to addressing the problem of disinformation is to reset the terms of the debate in a manner which helps our democracy instead of private platforms.

Ruchi Gupta is executive director of the Future of India Foundation. This article is based on the Foundation’s upcoming report, Politics of Disinformation. The views expressed are personal

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Sunday, October 02, 2022
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals