National Security

Free Speech, Social Media, and Government Regulation

Twitter and Facebook sent their executive leadership to Washington last week to testify before Congress on the role that their social media platforms had in recent U.S. elections. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg answered questions from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during a hearing about foreign interference in the elections via social media. Google was notably absent in the discussion, to the disappointment of the committee’s leadership.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) began the hearing by recognizing that while social media has been a force for good, it is vulnerable to “corruption and misuse.” He called that misuse “a threat to our democracy, the founding ideal of different people from different beliefs and ideas all living peacefully under a single flag.”

This was the final hearing on the influence of foreign powers on U.S. government through social media. The technology has come under increased scrutiny after it was discovered that Russia used social media to influence the 2016 election. Now, lawmakers, executives, and the American public are scrambling to figure out what regulation, if any, should be put in place to prevent that from happening again. Consumer protection laws and free-speech guidelines exist for other media; but how exactly does social media fit in?

What was Discussed?

The focus of the hearing was specifically on Russian influence, although the discussion was not limited to Russia alone. The problem of vulnerabilities within social media and how to fix it is a larger problem, requiring collaboration between companies, government agencies, and security experts.

Committee leadership recognized the action that each company has taken to increase transparency and prevent further foreign influence but had tough questions for Facebook and Twitter. The tone of the hearing was both urgent and candid, with discussion focused on accountability and solutions.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg shared the steps that the company has taken already to respond to the problem. She highlighted the additional personnel that Facebook has employed to respond to security needs, including the new ability to review reports in 50 languages at any time of day or night.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey spoke (and tweeted) about how the Twitter platform acts as a digital public square for users to engage and discuss issues of the day. He spoke about the need for Twitter to make changes to respond to what has happened and how needs have changed in the 12 years that Twitter has been available. Twitter has increased transparency around advertising and removing accounts that don’t abide by Twitter policies.

Dorsey also testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about Twitter’s transparency and accountability. He has come under fire for potential political bias and for the negative aspects of social media. Data collected by independent researchers raised eyebrows about how quickly false or negative information spreads on Twitter, prompting the hearing. A protestor interrupted the hearing but was escorted out while Representative Billy Long (R-Mo.) spoke over her as an auctioneer.

One of the first questions posed at the Senate hearing was how to define social media going forward. That question is at the foundation of the discussion. Is social media a content creation platform? A content facilitator? An unregulated forum? Sandberg answered that “social media enables you to share what you want to share when you want to share it without asking permission from anyone.”

This brings up questions of free speech for users. Dorsey commented that users of Twitter often have the same expectations of the platform that they would of any public conversation space. Free speech and censorship is one of the main concerns of increased regulation, but it is important to understand the difference between a typical user and the automated or malicious accounts that the companies are seeking to thwart.

Data collection also came up in how it relates to targeted advertising. The committee expressed concern about how much actual users understand what data they are consenting to provide, as well as whether users know the dollar value of their information to potential advertisers.

Advertising is an important part of the discussion. Both Facebook and Twitter differentiate between open content creation, such as that individual users post and share with their friends and family, and advertising content. Policies about what can be shared differs between open content and advertising content. But what about content that is shared with the intent of influencing or advertising, but doesn’t fall under the paid-advertising umbrella? It is exactly this issue that lawmakers and executives are working to address.

“Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). “We must not make it easier for our adversaries to seize these weapons and use them against us.” Both Sandberg and Dorsey agreed with his statement.

Transparency in advertising, data collection, and collaboration among the industry, academic institutions, and law enforcement were all discussed. Creating a formal process for sharing security information and tips was identified as an area for improvement.

How Much Should Be Regulated?

The big question that remains is how to stop foreign actors from manipulating the American public via social media while still protecting the right of free speech for users. When people hear government regulation, they immediately fear that the government will be stepping in and stopping them from expressing their views.

The right of free speech is protected under the First Amendment and is a cornerstone of the American way of governing. Journalists rely on that right to publish facts and opinion without fear of government retribution or censorship. Our right to free speech is one part of what holds elected and appointed government officials accountable to the American people for their actions.

“What happens when an authoritarian regime asks you to do that?” asked Marco Rubio (R-FL) about regulating content that is put on social media. “Because their definition of disinformation or misinformation could actually be the truth.” This raises the question of whether Facebook and Twitter will be US-based companies loyal to protecting freedom of expression or global companies loyal to profits.

Some policies remain in question about providing information to foreign governments about content within their country, censoring content within a nation that does not provide freedom of expression such as in the United States, or other similar actions. “We do have to comply with the laws that govern us within each one of these nations,” answered Dorsey, while including that the ideals and values of Twitter are more in line with those of the United States, where Twitter was founded.

The challenge that social media executives face is walking a fine, uncharted line between content creation and content facilitation. While users create content, the technology behind Facebook and Twitter through algorithms gets that content in front of an audience. “People are affected by the information your platforms channel to them. That channeling isn’t passive or random,” said Chairman Burr.

The moral and legal obligation of social media companies to address accounts that advocate violence also came up without an agreed-upon solution. Everyone at the hearing was committed to taking action to make sure that social media did not become a part of violent acts. Exactly how to do that will be a challenge that they’ll work to solve.

Recognizing inauthentic actors, those who misrepresent themselves on social media, is fairly straightforward, according to Sandberg, while addressing hate speech or other calls to violence is trickier. A team of policy and security experts reviews cases, sometimes with debate over what violates the company’s policy.

Our Digital Future

The committee recognized that information warfare will only increase as technology becomes more complex and exploitation capabilities get better.

The reality is that reviews like the one held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are both necessary and urgent in today’s world. We can no longer ignore the vulnerability that comes with getting information from unregulated online sources, such as Facebook and Twitter. Now that the platforms have grown beyond just sharing photos of your kid’s first day of school or funny cat videos (although there is still plenty of that), we must consider these sources with the same scrutiny that we apply to other news outlets. This includes protecting free speech as well as protecting consumers.

While it opens vulnerabilities, technology may also be part of the solution. Algorithms and artificial intelligence have been useful tools in helping companies like Facebook and Twitter identify questionable content that was ultimately removed from the platform.

Authorization for larger-scale organizations running large pages on social media will now be required to ensure that pages are authentic. Other internal policies being implemented include transparency about advertising and continuous review by security experts.

One of the challenges the government faces is protecting free speech while ensuring consumers are protected. One of the challenges facing social media companies is a lack of access to classified information that could help identify vulnerabilities and attacks. Both sides of the hearing committed to working together to come up with solutions.

What should the future for social media look like? It is a complex problem, as everyone involved in the hearing acknowledged. But as Senator Burr said as the hearing began, “there are no unsolvable problems. There’s only the will to do what needs to be done or its absence.”

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Katie Begley

Katie Begley is a US Naval Academy graduate and former Surface Warfare Officer. In addition to being a military spouse, she is a freelance writer specializing in travel, education, and parenting subjects. Katie has worked in numerous communications roles for volunteer organizations and professionally for a local parenting magazine.

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