In Favor of the Public Interest: Social Media Should be Regulated

Jan 31, 2020

In response to the question "Is there an ethical responsibility to regulate the Internet?", the following essay was selected as a winner of Carnegie Council's 2019 international student essay contest.

Essay by Rita Valkovskaya

Social media presents a number of dangers that require urgent and immediate regulation, including online harassment; racist, bigoted and divisive content; terrorist and right-wing calls for radicalization; as well as unidentified use of social media for political advertising by foreign and domestic actors. To mitigate these societal ills, carefully crafted policy that balances civil liberties and the need for security must be implemented in line with the latest cybersecurity developments.

According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), private online service providers are free from liability for content posted on their sites, with some exceptions for child pornography, human trafficking, and other federal offenses. Social media freedom has empowered state and non-state actors with the means and know how to co-opt the media landscape. For example, in 2016 Russia used Facebook to micro-targets ads at Americans in order to sway the presidential election. This environment has also allowed "lone-wolf" attackers to use social media to broadcast violence. In 2019, the New Zealand mosque mass shooter live-streamed the attacks. Self-regulation by social media companies has thus far failed to address the growing threat to safety and democracy through suspect online content. The lack of control and regulation will continue to leave media content in a frightening vacuum, as foreign powers like Russia, and domestic and international extremists become ever more skilled at using social media to advance their agendas. The introduction and evolution of AI technology that is now capable of creating "deep fake" video content, using bots to micro-target populations with ads, and participate in human-like conversations, presents imminent future dangers of exponentially multiplying the current threats.

Historically, in line with widely accepted journalistic standards of impartiality and accuracy, print publication editors at major news organizations applied a strict standard of ethical journalism before publishing content. As a result, they had the editorial power to prevent harmful content from reaching major audiences. Until the 1980's the "Big Three" media channels dominated American television, providing similar oversight in television. The interpretation of news by beloved newscasters like Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings had the trust of the American public.

Today, the editorial monopoly previously held by major news networks and print publications is being contested by numerous Internet sources. Falling print subscription rates have resulted in the collapse of the print publishing industry, with many major newspapers closing their doors or significantly diminishing the scope of coverage. Individuals, foreign interests, and anyone with a social media account and the ability to "crack" the code of social media distribution is capable of reaching audiences as large as major news sources like The New York Times or NBC News. According to James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), this new Internet and media structure creates "an absence of mediation" that is present in traditional media in the form of editors, or in a library in the form of a librarian. As a result, he argues, "fiction and fact blend easily."

The biggest social media companies (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) have both precipitated and exploited this growing media vacuum. According to a 2018 Pew Research study, roughly two-thirds of Americans get their news on social media, with Facebook accounting for 43 percent and YouTube for 21 percent of content. In his book Social Media and the Public Interest, Philip Napoli argues that coders and engineers are now on par with editors and journalists when it comes to crafting and disseminating media content.

In the U.S., free speech has historically been adamantly protected, and potential infringement on it via social media regulation is anathema to anti-regulators. However, social media presents increasingly more dangers than traditional First Amendment expressions like spoken word. In the online sphere, "natural" forms of social regulation have become obsolete. Anonymity of Internet postings limits the ability of society to "penalize" the actor who chooses to use socially suspect language or ideas. For example, in real life, in-person harassment may cause physical retaliation, while repetition of controversial and fringe ideas can cause social ostracism, affecting the future expression of such anti-social behaviors. Online, anti-social personalities meet their equals and unite in their transgressions.

Security is the foundation of a free society, and is foundational for the freedom to vote in a fair and free environment. Today many Americans feel a lack of adequate security when faced with revelations of foreign interference in domestic elections, or instances of terrorists and extremists using social media platforms to conduct operations to murder and maim. The sheer size of the social media market in news delivery, as well as the numerous instances of social media being used for harmful ends, are powerful reasons why the freedom of social media must be limited with carefully crafted, democratically discussed regulations. Without it, our society is giving the reigns of our security, the direction of our value system, and a healthy functioning of our election cycle, to uncontrollable and unpredictable forces, or worse yet, to malicious actors who act with ill intent against the public interest.

I propose the following first steps to achieve effective social media regulation:

1. The government must create a clear set of standards for social media communication, and compel compliance

The development of new laws and policy should be the outcome of engagement with the private sector, the security community, as well as international actors in order to design a system upon consensus and multi-disciplinary, balanced set of views. For example, 2018 legislation proposed in the U.S. Senate aimed to protect the right of the population not to be targeted and misled by social media micro-targeted content and political ads placed by foreign powers. The "Honest Ads Act" proposes compelling social media companies to disclose their advertising methods. The "Bot Disclosure Accountability Act" proposes the creation of limits on the use of automation behind ads on social media. Further legislation must be developed in order to assure transparency behind ads and memes and allow readers of social media to become educated consumers, making educated choices based on disclosures about who placed the ads and content, and who provided the funding for the content.

2. The government must actively engage in multilateral negotiations with international partners to establish a base standard of behavior in the social sphere, and define what constitutes a cyber-information attack or cyber attacks

Russia has weaponized the information sphere to spread disinformation during the 2016 elections in the U.S., and has used these tactics during military action in Georgia and Ukraine, in order to confuse public opinion and win military conflicts. In order to prevent further attacks, the U.S. must define the "red lines" that foreign actors must not cross, or else risk some specified retaliation from the United States.

3. The United States should follow and evaluate the outcomes of social media regulation already executed in other countries, and base domestic regulation on best practices

For example, Singapore's recent legislation criminalized fake news, as defined within the discretion of the government. Violators who don't comply with government requests are penalized with hefty fines. Germany now regulates social media content via the Network Enforcement Act, aka NetzDG, by mandating that social media providers comply with government guidelines on blocking hate speech, defamation, and other illegal content. Fines go up to $56 million per violation.

4. The government should continue to provide research funding for private firms, the government, and academic institutions to advance the use of machine learning and AI in the spheres of social media "clean-up"

Using automated regulation is a cumbersome and nascent exercise. Current use of AI to delete offensive content has the potential of making mistakes, and is too labor intensive to moderate every single social media message posted online. As a result, significant funding into this field is crucial in order to balance targeted content removal with constitutional free speech protections. A successful example of automated content regulation is Google's Redirect Method, which uses an AI algorithm to guide the users to content opposing extremism if they seek out offensive content like terrorists messaging.


In the U.S., where media access is varied and free and journalistic integrity continues to be a celebrated standard, there is a false feeling of security in regards to the quality, fairness, and truthfulness of information that people consume. Because the media is not used as a tool of government control as in a dictatorial state, it is easy to forget that the media can have powerful effects on their psyche, emotions, consumer choices, choices of jobs, and social behaviors. Continuing without regulation out of fear of undue government control over free speech results in embracing the steady flow of harmful content generated haphazardly by multiple parties on social media, as a continuing threat the public interest.


Rita Valkovskaya is a Master of Public Administration student at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs focusing on security, emerging technologies, and Russian and Eurasian affairs. She is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. She currently works as a graduate researcher at the Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law, where she conducts research into the Russian technology sector. Rita's future goals are to influence policy in order to serve and better the local and global community. With a former professional background in luxury manufacturing and entrepreneurship, Rita combines her passion for global affairs and security with a deep understanding of business, global supply chains, and the power of image creation in the media. In her free time, Rita loves to hike, kayak, explore the outdoors, and travel.

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