For Social Media Platforms, Free Speech Has Evolved into a Business Model
Published in The Hindustan Times
Social media platforms achieved unbridled growth by adopting a laissez-faire approach to user-generated content. This approach was underpinned by legislative frameworks around the world which sought to indemnify content hosting internet intermediaries from liability arising out of user-generated content. At the same time, as private companies, social media platforms have the freedom to decide what content they want to host. This freedom is reflected in the differential content standards across different platforms as also in the differential application of standards for the same piece of content.
Platforms have carte blanche to decide what content they want to host and distribute. However, since all the major social media platforms were based primarily in the US, their content moderation policies drew upon American First Amendment principles (which prohibits government from curtailing free speech, among other freedoms) to restrict only very narrowly defined categories of content. Platforms have similarly sought recourse to First Amendment free speech principles to reject calls for an interventionist approach towards misinformation. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook are all on the record stating their aversion to being the ‘arbiters of truth’ and that the platforms should be a marketplace of ideas.
Taken at face value, platforms’ proclivity towards “free speech” seems not just reasonable but laudable. However, it can be argued that for social media platforms “free speech” is a business model instead of a principled imperative. It is evident that a hands-off approach to speech is operationally simpler since content moderation is not just complex but also politically fraught. Moreover, important high-profile content moderation decisions by platforms are often ad-hoc and driven by external pressure - especially government, media, PR - instead of coherent speech policies. Further, platforms have been known to take down or block content (including critical political speech) based on government requests while also making exceptions for powerful users linked to the government and its affiliates.
Most importantly, platforms have opportunistically used the laudable principle of “free speech” and the protection against liability for intermediaries to advance their business models while failing to ensure a good information ecosystem. Traditional news media is liable for published content and must thus invest time and resources to vet information before publishing. Platforms compete with traditional news publishers for advertising revenue while enjoying the double advantage of speed (to get content to users) and protection from liability (for unvetted content). Since, advertising revenue is directly proportional to the amount of time users spend on the platforms, platforms have exploited this twin advantage to boost user engagement without caring about the deleterious impact of a surfeit of misinformation on the information ecosystem and wider democracy.
Social media platforms keep users engaged by constantly keeping their feeds populated with new content from sources and content creators that the user has not proactively followed. This deliberate boost to the organic reach of a subset of content by the platforms is known as “amplification”. Since quality and value-based amplification is difficult due to the challenge of determining “quality” and “value”, platforms rely on amplification based primarily on engagement signals. This approach absolves platforms of the need to exclude vast swathes of bad content while remaining value agnostic and avoiding charges of editorial control. Since hateful and polarizing content gets more engagement (as admitted by platforms themselves), this value-neutral and engagement-driven approach is resulting in amplification of misinformation and other harmful content - including in some instances, content which violates platforms’ own content policies
It is this turbocharged distribution through social media platforms, which has made misinformation and propaganda invasive and pervasive. Platforms have further elided the distinction between different sources of information which has removed an important signal of credibility and ideological positioning of the consumed content. Instead engagement is perceived to be a bigger driver of the importance - and by extension - credibility of a piece of news. This equal treatment (appearance and placement of different and unequal sources of information) and making virality instead of quality the primary determinant of a source’s credibility and/or a piece of content’s importance has eroded the distinction between vetted information, propaganda and misinformation in the minds of the user. The impact is especially acute in India because platforms have de-facto control over distribution of the message combined with low digital literacy among users.
It is a testament to the efficacy of the lobbying efforts of social media platforms that instead of focusing on amplified distribution of misinformation, the discourse has exclusively framed measures to reduce misinformation as being in “tension” with freedom of expression, an issue which can arise only in the case of outright removal. Moreover, since platforms are private companies, the issue even in the case of outright removal of content, is not freedom of speech but political neutrality of the platform. The degree of permissiveness for misinformation, hate speech, etc is thus a political and/or commercial choice by the platforms.
It is clear that even if “free speech” was an article of faith for social media platforms, it has now evolved into justification for a lucrative business model that privileges user-engagement over information quality. Moreover, the platform-fueled binary between misinformation and free speech is a red herring designed to obfuscate platforms’ role in distribution and amplification of misinformation. The first step then in addressing the problem of disinformation is to reset the terms of the debate in a manner which helps our democracy instead of private platforms.