Late last May, President Donald Trump stepped up his battle with social media by issuing an executive order intended to prevent the censure of political speech expressed on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Mr Trump allegedly saw the last straw when Twitter showed the nerve to fact check the President by attaching a number of links to some of Mr Trump’s tweets. He didn’t like that.
Mr Trump is not alone in his frustration with social media. Other Republicans and conservatives have complained in recent years about what they deem as bias against conservative political viewpoints and alleged liberal political positions taken up by executives at the social media companies.
To combat the alleged bias, Mr Trump issued an executive order that would call for the Federal Communications Commission to issue rules that clarify portions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (47 USC 230). The Act excludes Twitter, Facebook, and other interactive computer services from civil liability where they exercise good faith in removing and otherwise not accepting certain harmful content. Taking censorship action beyond the scope of the “Good Samaritan” exceptions would paint them as publishers and cost them their protection from civil liability claims.
Specifically the Act reads as follows:
(c)Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material
(2)Civil liability. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—
any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers
or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).
Mr Trump would like rules that clarify the interaction between section (c)(1), exemption from treatment as a publisher, and section (c)(2), exemption from liability of a publisher, of the Communications Decency Act. My issue is whether Mr Trump’s proposed path of action in any way hinders the ability of the African Diaspora community to exchange ideas and content for commercial purposes?
Maya Dollarhide defines social media as a:
” …. computer-based technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information through the building of virtual networks and communities. By design, social media is internet-based and gives users quick electronic communication of content. Content includes personal information, documents, videos, and photos. Users engage with social media via computer, tablet or smartphone via web-based software or web application, often utilizing it for messaging.”
A high percentage of adults within the African Diaspora use social media. According to Pew Research, 69% of African American adults use at least one social media site compared to 73% of whites. Whites and blacks appear on par when it comes to social media usage.
When it comes to commercial reasons for using social media, 29% of consumers use social media platforms to research or buy products and services. Although the “social” or lately the “political” component of social media gets a lot of attention these days, there is a marketing component to social media where these networks allow for businesses to engage with their customers. Social media provides a relatively lower cost alternative to traditional media marketing mechanisms. A well done social media campaign can have information go “viral” about goods or services, and send this information instantaneously around the globe.
We have to be mindful that the drafting and implementation of rules to be used to keep social media companies in compliance with the Communications Decency Act may not come to pass depending on the outcome of this fall’s election. Should Mr Trump lose in November, the Democratic victor will likely put in place a Democratic chairman and along with his or her Democratic colleagues squash the idea of going forward with any rules that give the impression that the Commission has entered the business as social media speech police.
Even if Mr Trump wins and a Republican majority remains in place at the Commission, I believe the Commission will craft very narrow rules in order to prevent any First Amendment violations. More importantly, rules that keep social media companies from acting as editors benefit the global exchange of commercial information between members of the African Diaspora.
While I doubt that it is ever in the best interest of Facebook to edit or alter purely commercial communications, advertisements, etc. between an African American wholesaler in Atlanta, Georgia and potential retail distributors and/or end users in Accra, Ghana, added protections that keep communications unimpeded cannot hurt.
The narrower the rules, the better it is for our self-interests.