What should be done about the political misuse of social media? The article Policing Propaganda from The Economist argues that tech firms like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media enterprises should be subjected to government regulation of political advertisements. While the political sphere had once lauded the Internet for its capacity to organize citizens and carry information far and wide instantaneously, as Nathaniel Persily writes in his article Can Democracy Survive the Internet?, it is now looked upon with contempt, especially by Democrats frustrated with the direction of American politics, for its tolerance of candidates looking to win by promoting misleading or outright false information. To illustrate the extent of the tolerance for political lies on the Internet, Senator and former Democratic hopeful Elizabeth Warren even took out an ad on Facebook falsely claiming that the website’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had endorsed Donald Trump for President. According to Phillipe C. Schmitter, one of the most important cornerstones for a democracy is the availability of accurate and alternative sources of information for citizens, and while The Economist is correct that the Internet should be regulated against content that damages democratic norms, this regulation should not be directly done by the government.
It can be tempting to think that the government should, however, impose wide-reaching rules on social media websites. If the government regulates other industries, then why shouldn’t it regulate speech on tech platforms like Facebook? As the author states, if the government is allowed to regulate political content on television and radio, then why shouldn’t it be able to do the same on the Internet? The answer is that rules for other industries, like automobile manufacturing safety or water pollution, do not have the same direct bearing on a politician that political advertising does, and there is little opportunity for politicians to change these rules to their direct personal benefit (besides, of course, in the case of bribes or lobbying from those companies). Even on television and radio, where ads are simple, static messages, there is also not very much room to meddle with them. On the Internet, however, where content is much more complicated, dynamic, and uncontrolled—and its form and structure varies depending on the platform—there is too much at stake to allow government to have too large a hand in it. It is better to have a few companies make a bad decision and be punished for it than for a government unilaterally make an even worse decision for all of them.
Instead of a set of edicts dictating what may and may not be posted on any given website, the firms that run Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other services should find the policies that best apply to their particular platform. Different rules must necessarily apply to each of these websites, and the people best equipped to find them out are those who design and deploy them. For example, how can Facebook combat the sharing of “fake news” articles on their website, and how can blog services like WordPress and Blogspot prevent them from being published in the first place? The answers to these questions will be different and cannot be covered by one government policy, but instead must be prompted by citizen activeness and governmental response to overly lax rules and specific instances of misinformation. For example, tech companies could be fined a specific (and large enough to influence boardroom discussions) amount of money for the number and frequency of misleading political advertisements they host. Alternatively, they could be required to submit reports of lying advertisers and action being taken to curb their activities to an independent watchdog or government agency. However, it is also crucial that users, along with the government, demand change. Daron Acemoglu, in his article Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship, cites civil society, a culture of democratically-minded citizens, as an essential element of democracy. It is not reasonable to expect that people can change the ways of corporations by themselves, but if they are not interested in and enthusiastic about democracy, and if they don’t take action to affirm this belief, no amount of government intervention will solve their problem for them, and it may, in fact, make it worse. If the people want tech firms to reform the way political content is handled on their websites, they must apply pressure on the firms, in addition to asking their government to take action.
In conclusion, it is true that the Internet has problems and these problems cannot be avoided. A penalty to tech companies from the government, such as a fine or another type of sanction, for their unwillingness or inaction to prevent the propagation of misleading material on their websites, would be a wise course of action. However, concerned citizens should not leave things only up to the government once they get difficult. Instead, people should exercise their agency to keep both the government and the online services they use in check. This limitation on government action is not to say that all politicians are evil and cannot be trusted. However, it is unwise to rely on the principled few against a larger majority that is willing to take such extreme measures like gerrymandering and voter ID laws to be re-elected. If Americans are willing to demand change from both tech companies and the government, the improvements they make may help move toward a society where government is worthy of the trust that so many wish to prematurely vest in it. In other words, if politicians are no longer rewarded for lying online, then perhaps we will not have to work so hard to prevent them from doing so.