Social Media and the Social Contract

It’s not that all good things must pass away, it’s that the conditions that made them good very often evolve obviating their need or possibly turning their results against their initial benefits. Take the Communications Decency Act as an example and specifically Section 230. Passed in 1996, the Act was seen as a way of encouraging Internet use by telling platform providers like message boards that they were not responsible for the postings of their members.

The Declaration of Independence is a great example of Enlightenment thinking.
Rousseau clearly articulated the social contract.

Free Speech, Liberty and Freedom

First let’s dispense with the free speech point because it’s a real canard as the French would refer to a false or baseless and often derogatory story. No one aiming to corral content on the Internet is attempting to curtail liberty.

Regulation

Some opponents of the Safe Tech Act assert that the changes sought by its authors would require platform owners to police the content of their users because failing to do so might cause them to be liable for offensive content. But the same can be said of Fox News or any other content publisher. Although Fox is being sued, no one is predicting the end of broadcast news as we know it (though it may need to change as Fox knows it).

What’s Changed Since 1996

Perhaps the greatest change from 1996, the year that the Communications Decency Act passed, is that algorithmically driven social media has come into existence. And it’s not simply social media’s existence but how it works that presents a challenge. Social’s apologists like to claim that the various services are independent platforms and that their owners and operators have no control over what happens on the platforms.

Partners in Hate

It’s too strong to suggest that any social media company has consciously partnered with hate groups but that’s not even the point. The algorithmic oversight and operation of social media platforms has fundamentally changed their natures making the defacto case. They’ve gone from middle of the road platforms with free-for-all give and take to distinct camps of interest groups, some of which spew misinformation and hate and serve as organizing platforms for questionable or even illegal activities. All of this is supported by algorithms focused on the bottom line at the expense of the public good.

What to Do

No responsible person wants to see the end of social media because it has become a part of the fabric of global life and because banning it in one place would only cause it to spring up elsewhere.

A Short Checklist

Fixing the problems surfaced by social media’s popularity isn’t hard. Here’s a short checklist of what’s needed.

Lastly

It goes without saying that we need to stop making it easy for haters to find each other and then flock. These steps won’t eliminate the problem of hate speech entirely, but they will raise the ante and the bar. They’ll make people think twice about their posts and make it difficult for them to spread misinformation.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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