Twitter and Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump after the assault on the US Capitol in early January has been celebrated by many political commentators as a necessary display of responsibility on behalf of the influence big tech has in politics. An alternative, ‘free speech’ app, Parler, has been threatened by Apple and Google and kicked off Amazon’s servers. The pandemic has placed an even greater importance on online services, too. What does all this mean for the future of social media?
The changing nature of social media and its role in public life is a tricky issue. Before the pandemic, there were frequent complaints that services like Twitter and Facebook were something of a ‘wild west’ with comparatively ‘light touch’ regulation. Since the introduction of lockdowns worldwide, with public life in its physical form all but outlawed, these sites have quickly become far more important for citizens to be able to engage with one another.
Unsurprisingly, this has prompted an acceleration in demands to force big-tech to take responsibility for what its users have access to. For example, the UK government is pushing through its Online Harms Bill which will allow social-media companies to be fined billions of pounds if they fail to reduce the spread of ‘harmful’ content.
Another issue is how much liability Big Tech companies should have for what is posted on their services. Currently, such services are not legally responsible for the things posted on them. In legal terms, they are ‘platforms’ rather than ‘publishers’. But the banning of Trump and the flagging of certain content as ‘disputed’ suggests that these companies are taking more editorial control. In those circumstances, should they still enjoy the legal defence that they are not publishers?
What should be the role of social media today? If the public square – universities, schools, workplaces, pubs, parks and polling booths – are under some form of lockdown or restriction, is the internet the only viable place to quickly and freely share ideas? And, if so, should we begin to understand Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Reddit as publishers, platforms or (virtual) public spaces? What kind of regulation – if any – do we need to ensure healthy debate, and what are the legal implications for such changes?
In short, in a world when everyone (even David Attenborough) seems to have an online presence, what role does Big Tech play today – and what should it be in the ‘new normal’ of the post-pandemic world?
journalist, writer and broadcaster; presenter, Radio 4’s FutureProofing and How to Disagree; comedian, Take A Risk; author, Big Data: does size matter?
visiting fellow, School of Arts and Creative Industries, London South Bank University, co-author, Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for innovation
founder, Think of X, a new research network devoted to new thinking on technology, policy and markets; regular contributor, The Sunday Telegraph; former executive editor, The Register; assistant producer, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.