How should social media be regulated? | Opinions
The first month of 2021 was marked by two decisive political moments on two continents, which are united by a curious feature of modern communication. In the United States, far-right groups successfully radicalized, organized and militarized on social media, managed to break into the seat of Congress but refused to accept the result of a recent election and threatened the lives of the country’s highest lawmakers.
And in Uganda, in a highly controversial election, an increasingly cruel eighty-year-old who refuses to relinquish power stood up against a charismatic musician who became a politician who was young enough to be his grandson. Although the Ugandan incumbent promised a “scientific” election in which technology would be a key factor, he instead plunged the whole country back into the pre-digital era for a week with his latest weapon of choice – a national internet shutdown.
Two choices, united by the changing role of technology in our public sphere in general and the role of social media in hosting and moderating political discussions in particular. In the US, social media has contributed to widespread misinformation and hate speech that spawned groups like QAnon who infiltrated the US Capitol.
In Uganda, social media were the most important platform on which the opposition could document the violence of the ruling party, advocate social change and organize against excesses of power.
In the US, social networks have taken the former president off the platform and deactivated his accounts. They did the same in Uganda, and the president retaliated by banning social media for removing accounts affiliated with his party before shutting down internet wholesale.
In the first two weeks of 2021, the two extremes of what social media represent in public spaces were fully on display, underscoring that the same approach on the same platforms can have very different results and impacts in different social contexts.
As was to be expected, in the wake of both elections there were calls for more regulation of the social network platforms. Now that the damage caused by a failed content moderation has finally penetrated US national politics, the demands for regulation are unfortunately also shaped by US perspectives and interests.
It would be a big mistake for rulemaking around social networking sites to consider only the US experience, especially since activists and analysts from other parts of the world will not only face these problems for as long, if not longer, but also with the consequences new regulations live without the social or economic capital to make them sensitive to local contexts.
Basically, we are faced with a situation where the decision to ban politicians in the US leads to a decision to ban a dictator who then goes against the public in Uganda, while the decision to do nothing leads to genocide in Myanmar leads.
Based on their myths of origin and their own descriptions of what they did, the founders of these sites certainly did not see that they were developing into the major global political actors they are today.
In my book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, published in 2018, I analyze how these places have developed into important pillars of the public sphere in Kenya, where they fit into spaces created by the withdrawal of traditional media and the restrictions on organization and mobilization in the analog public were left open sphere. Kenya is the example, but the principle applies across all societies: the internet is an amplifier of all energies that exist in the analogue public, and one cannot understand the role that these platforms play in different societies if one cannot understand the respective society does not understand first.
Until recently, few countries – like Germany – actively pushed for regulations beyond corporate accountability to protect the type of speech that would be allowed on these platforms.
The rest believed the U.S. approach to freedom of expression was the best approach and felt that any necessary restrictions would be provided by users who volunteer to report negative content.
However, the US approach to freedom of speech is a political value that is rooted in a specific socio-political history: It only makes sense in the US in the context of US history and other provisions of US law in the broader sense that push the boundaries of the absolute freedom of speech in order to avoid major damage. In the USA, too, there is no absolute freedom of expression, and certainly not without consequences.
As these companies went global, they took the US approach to free speech, but not the guard rails that came with it. Their willingness to cuddle up with powerful politicians in tense political contexts in order to secure market access has become clear. In India, Facebook’s chief lobbying officer declined to deal with Hindu nationalist hate speech in an attempt to hurt the platform’s business prospects in the country.
This is against a backdrop of mounting tensions between the country’s two main religions, which analysts claim are being incubated and disseminated through social media. Social networking sites need to remember that freedom of expression is not a value in itself. It is a value that needs to be protected in a social context, and that understanding and responding to a social context requires greater investment than just relying on collaborative content moderation.
It is not inappropriate to call for a localized, historically sensitive approach to moderating the content that these platforms allow. The German approach to regulating Nazi language on social media was the most visible example of these mostly US companies bowing to local realities.
The ban on creating and distributing Nazi sympathizers online, while not stopping the rise of right-wing extremists in Germany, has slowed it down in ways that would make the US jealous. The point is that the German regulators had a clear red line on the type of content the social networking sites could allow, and perhaps because of the potentially large market, the sites were listening.
Yet Germany is an example of how municipalities can trust that regulators are acting in the public interest. The situation is different in countries like Uganda, where the regulatory authority acts primarily in the interests of those in power. In countries where regulation has historically been lax and focused primarily on restricting freedom of expression and criticizing the state, authoritarianism can only bow to government pressure without asking why.
All the more reason to think critically about what we want to reflect and address with the regulations that have arisen from this tense time. For the past 15 years, digital rights activists outside the US have been calling for social networks to be more proactive in entering societies around the world.
Activists have pointed out how these platforms incubate extremist rhetoric that is difficult for Western audiences to compare, e.g. But even in societies where traditional media has been paralyzed by state censorship and interference, and where the government can pressure cellular networks to take the whole country offline in the blink of an eye, activists have similarly argued that freedom of speech on social networking sites is an important pillar for the democracies they are trying to build.
Both positions are valid, and regulations emerging from this period of reflection should ideally incubate the good and allow activists to find a voice and community while containing the bad and preventing saboteurs and extremist groups from mobilizing and organizing .
This is at the core of the regulatory challenge related to social networking sites, and just working with the US experience will not solve it. Whatever rules and regulations come from this time of re-evaluation must work as far as possible for the US and the Ugandans of the world.
Rules for multinational corporations with socio-political interests in 197 different countries cannot just reflect the politics or political priorities of an individual. A terrible result would be if the rules enacted in Washington allowed dictatorships and atrocities in countries already prone to authoritarianism and censorship.
There are no easy answers, but a surefire way to make the situation worse would be to ignore what activists and thinkers from outside the US have been saying over the past 15 years. The US is having experiences that countries in other parts of the world have already navigated and learned from. It is important to create platforms where they can be heard.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own views and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.