State Power: Regulation and Control

We are facing a ‘crisis’ of social media: ‘what was once a liberating technology has now become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation (Shahbaz & Funk, 2019, p. 1). Opinion vary in regard to the level of regulation involved with digital media and internet usage. There are some who may say that “freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the internet and government control of the internet would limit my freedom of expression”. Whilst other may disagree, by saying that “the internet should be governed in some form to protect the community from harm”.

One example of this dichotomy is social media. A liberating and ubiquitous technology, designed to disseminate the voice of the proletariat and give platforms to those who do not have access to the more traditional means of production, such as print or broadcast. The responsibility and accountability of social networking sites, though, has come under scrutiny in recent times; specifically since the emergence of stories such as the way in which ‘Russia helped swing the election for Trump’ using ‘electronic warfare’ (Mayer, 2018). This promotes a question of ownership, specifically, whom is responsible for a post on social media – the poster, or the host. This has been defined by the parameters of ‘carriage’ and ‘content’ (Flew, et al., 2019, p. 37), whereby the platform merely acts as a pinboard for individual users to post their messages. Therefore, this is an area of the internet which could, conceivably, be more tightly regulated in order to eradicate issues which plague social networking sites such as, hate speech, bullying and fake news.

This, though, is where another issue arises. This is the idea of social media adopting a one-thought policy. Some may argue that, the regulation of social media is equal to the apprehension of free speech. Here, the regulation of online communication may lead to the eradication or muffling of diverse political and personal perspectives, such as the ‘purge’ of ‘800 US political pages and accounts’ (Tynan, 2018). This rather subverts social media’s core principle of being reflective of society’s broad diversity. What may result is an echo-chamber type situation, whereby social media users, indoctrinated by the streamlined content which they are consuming, share matching attitudes and opinions which conform to regulatory values.

In February 2020, the UK government handed OFCOM (The Office for Communications) ‘new powers to regulate social media content’ (Oakes, 2020) following the publishing of the Online Harms White Paper in 2019 which, among other things, enlisted OFCOM to be an ‘independent regulator, overseeing and enforcing a new regulatory framework’ (HM Government, 2019). Once again, this raises the delicate question of ownership. Not, this time, ownership of free speech or the right to comminate. But the question of who owns the parameters to incite new regulation. Of course, the very essence of regulation, is to ultimately decide what is right and wrong – valid, or invalid. The ability to make that decision, in relation to a multi-national, ubiquitous entity such as social media, carries a huge amount of weight. A decision, which may now reside with OFCOM, will almost certainly be tainted by the personal and political views of the regulator. This could have an exponential effect on the validity of certain opinions which are expressed in social media and could lead to the one-thought policy expressed earlier, whereby, correctly, hate-speech, violence or bullying are eradicated from our social space. But also far-left or far-right political perspectives, which several people in the UK see as entirely valid, may be expunged – leaving a centrist, one-thought feed of perspectives.


Bibliography

Flew, T., Martin, F. & Suzor, N., 2019. Internet regulation as media policy: Rethinking the question of digital communication platform governance. Journal of Digital Media & Policy, X(1), pp. 33-50.

HM Government, 2019. Online Harms White Paper, London: APS Group.

Mayer, J., 2018. How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump. [Online]
Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/01/how-russia-helped-to-swing-the-election-for-trump
[Accessed 21 October 2020].

Oakes, O., 2020. Ofcom handed new powers to regulate social media content. [Online]
Available at: https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/ofcom-handed-new-powers-regulate-social-media-content/1673746
[Accessed 21 October 2020].

Shahbaz, A. & Funk, A., 2019. Freedom on the Net 2019: The Crisis of Social Media, Washington: Freedom House.

Tynan, D., 2018. Facebook accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages purged. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/oct/16/facebook-political-activism-pages-inauthentic-behavior-censorship
[Accessed 21 October 2020].

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