The social media debate: should it be regulated?

To explore the pros and cons of social media regulation, we conducted an internal exercise with Thentians. Here’s what they had to say.

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The debate over whether and how social media should be regulated has been waging for years, ebbing and flowing with certain world events such as the Capitol Hill riots or Facebook-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s recent testimony. The debate is currently flowing, with social media giants regularly called upon in the U.S. Senate and Congress to explain their technology and practices.

As such, we Thentians decided to take up the debate amongst ourselves and dig into this complex issue. For background, check out this primer on social media regulation in the U.S. At Thentia, we strive to understand our clients and the wider world of regulation. Organized as part of a regulatory training program developed by our Centre of Excellence, we conducted this topical thought exercise to increase staff’s knowledge of fundamental regulatory concepts and better understand the philosophical and practical struggles regulators face. It also served as a break from day-to-day work that fostered social and professional interaction, both increasingly important in our remote-work world.

The facilitation focused on two major themes:

  1. The precursor question of whether social media should be regulated and why.
  2. Exploring how social media should be regulated and the kinds of considerations that could shape the how, what, and who of social media regulation.

We performed the exercise in two phases, first meeting with each team to discuss the topic and run through a series of four questions. This process formed our qualitative data. We then followed up with a survey asking the same questions with simple multiple-choice answers to garner some quantitative data. Over 60% of staff participated in this casual, non-scientific study, and the quantitative data generally mirrored the discussions we had. What follows is a summary of our findings.

Should social media be regulated?

Of course, for some Thentians, the exercise didn’t go past this first question or the first theme: should social media be regulated? This is an important question; in order to effectively regulate social media (or anything for that matter) we need to clearly articulate the risk of harm of not regulating it as well as the risks of regulating it. About 61% of staff answering our survey thought that social media should be regulated, leaving about 38% that felt it should not be regulated and 1% unsure.

Certainly, this fundamental question is important and, even in a company serving regulators, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion to which we all agreed. Debate is good. Thentians opposing regulation of social media agreed social media can do harm but argued the slippery slope of censorship presented potentially greater harm.

A complicated relationship with social media

Resoundingly, most Thentians reported personally disliking social media in spite of using it in some form or another. Some of those that disagreed with the regulation of social media expressed the idea that social media is simply a platform for the exchange of ideas and that it facilitates “modern day conversation.” Resenting the conversation — a conversation that has been happening through the ages, but around kitchen tables, the water coolers, and local pubs — doesn’t warrant regulating it, they argue.

On the other hand, many Thentians agreed social media has gone beyond just being conversation – that it contains aggressive advertising and modulated content delivered through sophisticated algorithms. Algorithms that invade our privacy, learn our patterns, and feed a cycle that pushes personalized content while nurturing screen addictions on the individual level and eroding and distorting civic engagement at the macro level, among other deleterious effects. This type of operation, some argued, has led to violent events, such as the Capitol Hill riots, and contributed to the development of childhood anxiety by displaying fat-shaming content to teenagers.

This debate showed us risk of harm associated with social media is incredibly important to staff and needs to inform the how and what gets regulated. The first question then led us to the next set of questions and the second theme: the how, what, and who of social media regulation. Should consumers be regulated as opposed to the industry at large or the professionals within it? Who should govern social media regulation? Government, professionals using a self-regulatory model, or an arms-length independent entity?

As complex as the first question is, if the decision is to regulate, the following questions prove just as difficult to answer, if not more. As they should be; regulation is not easy – it’s a constant balancing act of serving the public interest by regulating, but also not over-regulating.

How should social media be regulated?

The majority (55%) felt that the industry as a whole should be regulated, meaning that any number of regulations could be put in place, on various people, places, things, and processes. Only 19% thought the model should involve professional self-regulation and under 1% felt consumers themselves should be regulated, by way of fees for accounts and requirements to fill out applications to validate identities.

That left a not insignificant amount of Thentians unsure of the exact model, and that’s okay; these are challenging queries. Many Thentians felt there should be stricter regulation around advertising since advertisers already face regulation across many other mediums. And going further, the algorithms that feed the advertising need to be regulated.

However, we had insightful discussion about making regulations data informed. If a certain algorithm is causally linked to a negative behavior, then that algorithm ought to be turned down (or off altogether, if the harm merits it). Discussion around algorithms also led to debate on whether algorithms created around other content such as news also need to be regulated. This line of discussion keenly demonstrated the need to articulate harm for principle-based rules. As well, the question of whether the definition of advertising would have to be broadened or amended if content around news, for example, was also to be regulated.

On the concept of regulating people involved in social media, many Thentians suggested software engineers may need to face stricter regulation and this idea was shared among many of our software developers. Of course, regulating the profession requires a much firmer definition of what the profession is, the requirements to get in, and the framework for enforcement. One developer aptly contrasted software engineers with other engineers or tradespeople like electricians who follow electrical codes. For developers, they noted, there is no code for code.

Who should govern a social media regulator?

Most Thentians opposed direct government regulation of social media as well as the idea it should be funded by tax dollars. Respondents were divided on whether it should be governed by an arms-length entity or a professional self-regulatory body (each garnering between 35-40% each).

Who should fund a social media regulator?

On the last issue as to who should fund social media regulation, a majority of Thentians (56%) believed the companies themselves should pay. As stated, less than 1% thought it should be tax dollars and same too as to user fees. Although, 24% believed it should be funded through a combination of tax dollars, user fees, and company contributions. That left roughly 18% of Thentians unsure.

Additional thoughts

Thentians also recognize social media is international and any regulation would have to contemplate its inter-jurisdictional nature in order to be effective. Also, whether in support of or opposed to social media regulation, all agreed better education is required at all levels, but particularly for K-12 students in order to better develop their critical thinking skills.

We also puzzled over some of the functions a social media regulator would undertake, but without definitive answers on how, what or who should be regulated, this proved challenging. Generally, there seemed to be some consensus that companies should be audited or inspected and they should face fines; fines that would actually serve as a deterrent and not just a nuisance.

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, we can’t say that Thentia has solved the challenge of social media regulation nor did we even come to a consensus on whether it should be or how it should be regulated. Our debate around the various issues may mirror much of society at large. Regulating social media directly is a massive undertaking and is likely why, up to now, there are a patchwork of laws and regulations in various jurisdictions that touch on aspects of it.

Part of the complexity around social media regulation may be because we don’t know everything about it yet, how it works, and how its affecting us, although we are quickly learning. As one Thentian analogized, social media companies are modern day tobacco companies – they hold the information about the harm their products play and we are in the process of getting full disclosure, which could inform future regulation. It will remain to be seen whether social media usage will decrease in the same way cigarette smoking declined as people learned of its detrimental effects.

 

 

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