There has been significant controversy raised over the inappropriate use of social media and how it has harmed people. The question of regulating social media is prevalent, especially when major social media harm cases arise in the public domain. However, the issue is still debatable since the benefits and disadvantages associated with social media. Additionally, banning social media would raise questions about infringing the rights of citizens. In the modern-day, social media is the modern public sphere where citizens enact their rights of speech and expression. The content produced by social media users is generally protected from the government under the First Amendment. However, the amendment fails to protect the content from social media companies. This failure has allowed big tech companies to moderate or censor the content produced with impunity to the dismay of social media users (Caplan, 2018). The First Amendment was designed to curb government’s power by protecting individuals (including private entities like big tech companies) against the government infringing on their elementary rights. The amendment, therefore, acts as an impediment to government and the will of the people to regulate big tech companies. The US government should regulate social media more because they are detrimental to the democratic culture, violate the first amendment, and negatively change civic engagement.
Democracy cannot thrive when social media giants subjectively decide which information is worth spreading and retaining and which should be discarded. The most significant challenge with social media moderation is that the big tech companies arrive at decisions in secrecy (Tennant, 2021). Social media giants do not promote the free and open exchange of speech because they employ high technology to silence those who challenge the preferred truths and provide little room for appealing the decision (Tennant, 2021). They often use subtle, occasionally blatant, effective means of silencing those who challenge what the companies regard as the truth. Social media companies are exclusively in charge of content moderation. While not all moderation is bad, the problem is that what one person regards as reasonable is unacceptable to another. When a company decides to censor certain content, appealing that decision is tedious and often futile. Research suggests conservatives are getting a raw deal from big tech companies compared to liberals (Tennant, 2021). Social media companies are seen as leaning on the left or sympathetic to liberals.
Social media users must be protected from big tech companies; however, the First Amendment cannot fulfill its protection obligation because users’ content is not protected against the platforms. Unlike traditional media, social media is not guaranteed press freedom, and thus it is not held accountable for the content published on platforms. Although powerful social networking sites are private entities, they can limit speech freedom more than the government (Hudson, 2018). A community that cares about the rights to free speech must consider that it is appropriate to amend the First Amendment and increase its reach to include powerful private companies that brought revolutionary changes in communication abilities. The primary justifications for vigorous protection of the First Amendment are individual self-fulfillment and the marketplace of ideas. Not government alone can infringe on these rights (Hudson, 2018). Evidence suggests that powerful private actors can circumvent free expression as much as the government.
Censorship derails individual expansion and personal growth (Hudson, 2018). When big tech companies like Twitter censor content, they deny an individual the right to participate in the marketplace of ideas and the ability to express themselves. Big tech companies are caught up between being private and profit-seeking companies and functioning as the public sphere (Hudson, 2018). They have not succeeded in regulating online abuses well. Their efforts to moderate content to weed out hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation often breed more controversy than consensus. Furthermore, big tech companies are immune to accountability from users’ harmful content posted on their platforms. There are efforts to revise Section 230 to remove this blanket immunity given to social media entities. Protagonists of this view indicate that internet ventures have become business behemoth giants and outlived the immunity they enjoyed two decades ago. Opponents believe that revising Section 230 will lead to censorship of rebellious speech.
Social media has a divergent impact on offline civic engagement for different groups of people. It is observed that the participation of youths is on a decline; however, social media use has been on the increase (Piatak & Mikkelsen, 2021). Reduced civic engagement significantly impacts participative democracy and society. How people use the internet matters, as informational use increases civic engagement while recreational use does the opposite (Piatak & Mikkelsen, 2021). Informational use of social media exposes people to a wider variety of political content and opportunities. It also enables users to build and expand their social capital. People who actively participate in civic engagement are more likely to engage offline. However, online civic engagement is not the remedy for youth participation. Active online participation may help narrow generational gaps in offline civic engagement but not close them. Voting presents the biggest challenge in relation to young people and offline civic engagement. For instance, millennials vote at half the rate of baby boomers, calling for the need to mobilize young voters (Piatak & Mikkelsen, 2021). Social media acts as an important tool for sharing information and promoting participation.
An unregulated social media industry has significantly greater benefits than a regulated industry. Regulating the companies will consequently affect the freedom of expression by social media users, which affects their democratic rights. To become fully functional individuals, people need and crave the freedom of expression to gain self-fulfillment. Restriction limits personal growth (Hudson, 2018). Quoting legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, Hudson (2018) indicates that the First Amendment state action principle should be reconsidered and done away with. That private censorship can do as much harm as public actors. Freedom of speech helps people make better decisions, and individuals intrinsically benefit from expressing their views. Therefore, any infringement to the freedom of speech is detrimental to these values. Although there are benefits associated with upregulation, some activities that infringe on the rights of citizens can be individually controlled without affecting the entire operation of social media companies. It will be necessary to think about the First Amendment along the lines of what free speech is for what it is not for, when it’s relevant and when it’s not, and how the law functions. Legal thinking should serve as an essential tool to find a new balance (Caplan, 2018). The law must evolve to help solve the serious challenges facing American democracy.
It is clear from the research that social media (or the modern public square, as the Supreme Court remarked) needs to be regulated to protect the public from harm. The law should find an equilibrium between the quest to broaden democracy and free speech and the need to protect the public from grievous harm associated with social media platforms. The First Amendment does not apply to private entities and fails to protect citizens. Additionally, an increase in social media use, especially among youths, is negatively correlated with offline civic engagement. Freedom of expression is critical because it is a fundamental component of democracy. Therefore, addressing the gaps in regulations that affect private entities is key to upholding a democratic culture.
Caplan, Lincoln. (2018). “Stress test for free speech: social media are destroying the democratic culture that the First Amendment is meant to protect.” The American Scholar. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsglr.A553904574&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Hudson, David L., Jr. (2018). In the age of social media, expand the reach of the First Amendment. Human Rights 43(4): 84–87. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshol&AN=edshol.hein.journals.huri43.37&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Piatak, J., & Mikkelsen, I. (2021). Does social media engagement translate to civic engagement offline? Nonprofit and voluntary sector quarterly, 50(5), 1079–1101. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshol&AN=edshol.hein.journals.npvolsq50.60&site=eds-live&scope=site
Tennant, Michael. (2021). Big tech vs. free speech. New American, 37(22): 10-16. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ulh&AN=153720238&site=eds-live&scope=site.