The Risk of Unregulated Social Media

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The Risk of Unregulated Social Media

Feb 03, 2023

Unregulated social media use can pose a national security risk when it is used to spread propaganda, organize violence, or when user data is compromised. As a private business, social media companies have little incentive to enforce conduct and security measures when controversy grows usership. In order to protect U.S. user data and enforce cyber security, the U.S. government should regulate social media platforms, especially those owned by overseas companies.

Congress passed a bipartisan spending bill in December that banned Tiktok on government devices after lawmakers voiced concerns about data privacy on the app. FBI Director Christopher Wray said he is “extremely concerned” about the platform’s operations in the U.S., telling members of a Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI’s national security concerns “include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm.” Wray expressed concern over the power of social media’s recommendation algorithm to compromise devices, giving companies the ability to “influence operations” or “control software on millions of devices.” In a Forbes report, TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance “planned to use the TikTok app to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens” via users’ IP addresses. A TikTok spokesperson said the app tracks users’ activity in order to “show relevant content and ads to users, comply with applicable laws, and detect and prevent fraud.” However, U.S. lawmakers have expressed skepticism over the app’s ability to protect user information from an “adversarial government.” Given the expanding presence of social media users of all ages and all levels of internet literacy, I believe the U.S. government should regulate the information people publish on social media. International companies have little incentive to protect U.S. user data and their individual governments may have access to this information, presenting a security threat to U.S. citizens.

Texas passed House Bill 20 in 2021 allowing users to sue social media companies like Twitter and Facebook for removing their posts on the basis of violating their First Amendment rights. Tech industry groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association filed a petition to the US Supreme Court to challenge the controversial decision, citing the law as unconstitutional. CCIA President Matt Schruers said that HB20 “endangers internet users in the short term and democratic principles in the long term” by limiting platforms' ability to moderate content related to foreign propaganda, hate speech, and pornography. The petition argues that HB20 infringes on the First Amendment rights of private businesses and that it is unconstitutional for the government to force social media companies to “disseminate vile content or overrule their private editorial decisions,” according to NetChoice spokesperson Chris Marchese. The bill was initially posed in the legislature by Republicans who argued that social media moderators unfairly target conservative content creators. I agree with the opponents of HB20 because domestic social media companies are private businesses that grant users a platform after agreeing to a contract of use that outlines company policies and violations. When users create a Facebook account, they must first agree to a “terms of use” contract that outlines conduct rules for using the app. If users want to post content that violates the company’s guidelines, they must accept the consequences and either modify their content or switch to a different app. Government involvement isn’t necessary.

When social media companies fail to enforce regulations, user activity can threaten national security. The 2021 capital riot was largely organized online and misinformation about COVID-19 put people at health risks. Social media has become a useful tool for law enforcement and the CIA to monitor online behavior and act preventatively before they become tangible threats to society. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has prioritized social media intelligence, or SOCMINT, as a cheap, low-risk way to “identify behavioral trends online and simultaneously predict future individual behavior.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the most popular social media platforms limit posts that “glorify or encourage violence, posts that are sexually explicit, and posts that contain hate speech” of various degrees. Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to limit disinformation, employing fact-checking software to review posts. However, critics claim their application is inconsistent and public figures can get away with posting “abusive or misleading content that might have been removed if it were posted by an ordinary user.” Social media companies have little incentive to regulate activity because “their ad-driven business model relies on keeping users engaged” and controversial content often leads to more engagement. I think that social media companies should regulate hate speech according to their individual conduct protocol but the U.S. government should monitor activity related to threats of violence, domestic terrorism, drugs and illegal activity. In short– if you call someone a slur and violate Twitter’s code of conduct they are allowed to terminate your account, but if you Tweet about organizing a mob to overrun the capital– Twitter should notify the CIA or suspend participating accounts.

Due to the national security risk that unmonitored social media use poses and the lack of incentive companies have to regulate user activity, the government should restrict illegal or threatening posts. However, I think government involvement should be limited to monitoring threats to national security or violence and allow social media companies to deal with issues of conduct breach.

Carolyn Kimball, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s media law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the following question: Should the government regulate social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, TikTok,  YouTube or Instagram? The class covers copyright and social media. Carolyn is a Journalism major.

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