Social Media Regulation

An overview of Germany’s Network Enforcement Act

Introduction

In November 2019 the actor and comedian Sacha Cohen spoke at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) about social media platforms. He focused on how they enable the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation. In his words, “Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. What do all these dangerous trends have in common? All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”

A few weeks before, in October, hundreds of Facebook employees signed a letter to the CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other leaders of the social network, decrying the company’s decision to let politicians post any claims they wanted — even false ones — in ads on the site. The employees’ proposal for improvement included: (1) Holding political ads to the same standard as other ads; (2) Strengthening visual design treatment for political ads; (3) Restricting targeting for political ads.  The full letter is here. 

Brazilians and Italians share some aversion to rules. In addition to cultural issues, we have a divisive federal government right now – that of Jair Bolsonaro. I called my sister, who is a pathologist, and told her what I had been watching events unfold. In the national capital of Brasilia the president had said on March 10 that “this is all a fantasy supported by the media.” By that time Brazilians were unaware of what Americans were beginning to witness.

Next we saw the usual suspects: memes, jokes, and a flood of misinformation via WhatsApp, which is the most popular social media platform in Brazil. When confronted with fear, people tend to laugh, and no other nation does it better than Brazil.

Will there ever be a consensus about how to regulate social media? Where will the United States stand?

As the history of American mass communications regulation has shown, every new communications technology undergoes the same evolutionary arc. The nascent years of Hollywood a century ago gathered a small group of individuals in California who took advantage of new technologies to dominate a new form of cultural communication. This allowed them to centrally define topics and narratives. Unlike the diverse local news industry that provided small-town America with its own voice, Hollywood centralized the distribution of messaging at a national scale.

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