Regulate social media — just like other media

Regulate social media — just like other media
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To lie about and slander people anonymously has never been a First-Amendment right, but social networks currently promote such malicious activities. Worse, Russian intelligence has manipulated dumb-witted social media, rendering them a national security threat. This must come to an end. The social networks need to be regulated as other media are regulated.

The scandals are known: Facebook sold political advertisements to Russians, and Twitter unwittingly allowed a multitude of Russian bots. Ordinary media would not allow such things to happen because they are regulated in numerous ways. Strangely, social media are treated as nothing but private conversation, although most people receive their news from Facebook.

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The tardy and inadequate reactions by Facebook and Twitter show they are neither interested in nor capable of pursuing self-regulation. Our discussion should not be about whether they should be regulated, but how. Drawing on the current regulation of press and broadcast media, some regulations are obvious, while others may need further consideration.

The first demand primarily concerning Twitter is to prohibit and eliminate bots, anonymous automatic participants in social media. These are pure vehicles of propaganda and should have no role in any medium. Real people should not suffer the insult of being attacked by electronic robots.

In democratic countries, anonymous accounts should be prohibited. Many raise the objection that employers check social media, and they may be sacked or not hired if they made themselves public. This is a problem of lacking freedom of speech.

In the United States, the answer should be that employers should not be allowed to infringe on First Amendment rights. This policy gets more complicated when it come to countries that are not free, but those lands are also the origins of many objectionable tweets.

When a newspaper publishes a letter from the public, it usually demands to know the name and address of the author. In the same way, in democratic countries, social media should demand knowledge of the holder of all accounts.

Many argue that this violates their privacy, but a far greater violation of privacy is when anonymous bots slander real people on the web in front of millions. A reasonable balance is needed, and that balance is far-reaching transparency.

All foreign citizens or companies should be prohibited from buying political or distribute advertisements in social media in the same way as they are not allowed to contribute campaign financing in the United States. Furthermore, the origin of any political advertisement should be public knowledge.

Given that Facebook and Twitter have proven so clueless, a public regulator needs to be appointed. The natural candidate would be the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.

Considering that social media move so fast, it would be desirable to add a special social media ombudsman with the ability to act much faster than the FCC does.

The social media platforms can no longer see themselves as mere technology companies. Their time of political innocence is over. They must take responsibility for their content. Exactly as newspapers, they need a publisher or editor with legal editorial responsibility.

One of the most obvious duties of a social media platform would be responsibility for not accepting and spreading obviously false information, which played such an outsized role in the last U.S. presidential campaign.

Each social media company should be obligated to establish a system for checking incoming information and exclude what is obviously false or even slanderous. Fact checking is not enough. Sheer lies must be expelled.

Wikipedia has done so voluntarily, and it should be in the interest of the social media companies to do the same. An obvious explanation to the stagnation of Twitter followers is that evermore customers are turned away by the unmitigated flow of false and malicious information. Facebook is likely to face a similar blow.

Facebook and Twitter have already proven that they are unable to self regulate. Congress needs to pick up the baton and legislate sensible rules for the regulation of social media. 

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He also teaches at Georgetown University. He is a leading specialist on economic policy in Russia, Ukraine and East Europe.