Ep. 89 Is it Time to Regulate Social Media?

Phone, with the image of a leaf that if you look more closely is bodies. A lock on the phone.Recently, a man opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand leaving 50 dead and dozens more injured. The massacre was announced on the internet and streamed live on Facebook. On Reddit, one of the most popular sites on the internet, people were narrating the video on a forum devoted to watching people die.

A YouTube executive told NPR that in the first few hours after the massacre, a new copy of the shooting video was being uploaded to different accounts on its platform once every second.

Phil Napoli’s research focuses on media regulation and policy.  He has provided expert testimony to the U.S. Senate, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission among other government entities. He joins host Judith Kelley to discuss potential government regulation of social media platforms.

Conversation highlights have been edited for readability and clarity.

Conversation Highlights

Initial Reactions to the Role of Social Media in the Christchurch Attack

Well, this of course wasn’t the first time something like this has happened. We’ve had similar events, live streaming of murders, suicide, etc, happen in the past. I think for me, the first question that occurred to me was, is this event going to produce any kind of different responses than the previous events did? Was the magnitude greater that it would provoke some kind of more aggressive response?

Certainly, what seems to be happening in New Zealand, they seem to be responding quite aggressively in terms of how they are taking action. Whether it provokes a broader global change in policy on the part of governments, on the part of the actual platforms remains to be seen. But we have started to see at least some discussion happening about some legitimate changes in platform policies.

On what regulation for the social media space might look like

I think maybe the best model is some sort of what we might call government mandated self-regulation, which we also have an interesting tradition of in the media sector. This is where government sort of suggests or compels a media sector to engage in self-regulation, and does so in a way that’s sort of multi-stakeholder and isn’t about these individual platforms individually necessarily establishing criteria and making decisions based on those criteria but that there is a more multi-stakeholder model for developing content standards and enforcement guidelines.

It’s also about asking the question whether or not we treat social media the way we treat the internet as a whole.

That’s one of the arguments that people keep having to remind people about, which is social media is not the Internet. The Internet existed before social media. There’s a whole realm of the Internet that exists separate from social media. So we don’t want to conflate the two.

[Social media] operates much more like a broadcast medium than the internet does. It’s more of a push medium, less of a pull medium. [the Christchurch massacre] was being distributed by thousands of individuals. That’s very different from somebody going online and seeking it out and looking for it as opposed to it showing up unexpectedly in your social media feed.

Broadcasting was regulated in part because it was deemed “uniquely pervasive.” That is the idea that children might unexpectedly stumble upon content that is harmful. There you are scrolling through your news feed expecting cat pictures and suddenly you’re confronted with mass murder.

Can we go back to being active seekers of news and information rather than passive receivers?

That’s a good question. The interesting thing is there have been a few instances where Facebook has gone down for a couple of hours and immediately the data show you see people going back to their old mechanisms for obtaining news and information: utilizing search engines, et cetera.

We’ve even seen search reassert itself as the predominant way people access news and information over the past year in light of all of these controversies and concerns around social media.

So social media’s role as news disseminator is actually on the decline at least temporarily. Whether that continues, we’ll see.

So, yes, the horse, as they say, is never going back in the barn. But we could also approach these things generationally. Maybe my son who’s nine can be trained to go about becoming an informed citizen in a very different way than say our current students have.