Editorial

Social media needs an independent oversight body

| Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

Self-regulation is not working. Neither can it be left to governments to regulate as this could become a potent weapon to control public discourse

The public spat involving Twitter, Facebook, and President Donald Trump has once again exposed Facebook’s double standards when it comes to regulating content on its platform. Twitter ‘fact-checked’ two of Trump’s tweets and labelled another on George Floyd as glorifying violence. Twitter also disabled a video by the President’s campaign team citing copyright infringement. Facebook, on the other hand, refused to take down a controversial post by Trump despite protests from its own employees. Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook, defended his decision by saying that though he did not agree with the President’s views, the social network’s free speech principles warranted that the post could not be taken down. In sharp contrast, ahead of the general elections in India in 2019, Facebook took down 1,000 pages and accounts for allegedly engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour or spam. Of this, 687 were associated with entities close to the opposition Congress party. In that instance, Facebook based its action on user behaviour, without even going into the content they posted. There were no concerns about free speech expressed by the social media platform while taking down the pages then.

This lack of consistency could set a dangerous precedent as pages related to political dissent or a social campaign could be taken down, or left untouched, depending on how Facebook perceives the situation or how vulnerable it is to pressure from governments. The social media platform recently set up an oversight board in a bid to showcase that it can self-regulate. However, a big drawback of this board is that, with up to 90 days allowed for a decision, it is simply not designed for an era of instantaneous transmission. A platform which has been accused of not doing enough to prevent users’ data from being leaked to third party entities cannot be trusted to do its own policing. Neither can it be left to governments to regulate as this could become a potent weapon to control public discourse. Given the influence social media platforms wield on public opinion, electoral outcomes and consumer behaviour, it is time to set up an independent regulatory oversight mechanism.

In India, social media is both unregulated and vulnerable to government pressure. While social media has enhanced the free flow of information and supported freedom of speech, it has also led to the rise of hate-mongering — India leads the world in the number of official “take down” orders issued to social media. Policymakers must put in a framework that brings in transparency in terms of the responsibilities and rights of all stakeholders — users, intermediaries, and the government.

Published on June 05, 2020
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