As social media has grown and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have grown exponentially as a part of our lives, they have become the central forums through which business, organisations, and individuals can exchange ideas, opinions, and information. As they have grown in influence upon our lives and as a portion of the internet, they have become inhabited by a larger range of views on our cultural and political spectrum. Simultaneously, advertisers latched onto these platforms in an attempt to reach an audience that spends increasingly more time online and both creators and the platforms themselves welcomed this move to help monetise their content.

However, these corporate advertising interests are fundamentally at odds with the very nature of these platforms, they are struggling to reconcile these bastions of freedom of expression with the desire to monetise and advertise on digital content.

We recently looked at how tech firms are attempting to combat or deal with ‘junk news’ (AKA fake news) and coordinated malicious use of bots, so we wanted to examine where the burden of truth should lie. In other words, is it the responsibility of social media firms to police content on their platforms? Or does the burden lie upon us as individuals to fact check, assess sources, educate ourselves, and generally engage in a level of critical thinking that should inhabit our everyday lives?

Why They Should Regulate Content

  • Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have replaced traditional media outlets, such as TV news or newspapers as the main forum through which people consume news and information. With that comes a responsibility to ensure that people can trust the information they are reading – especially when they contain links to “news” sites or advertisements.
  • These platforms have grown so rapidly and are based on such complex algorithms and systems, that they are the only ones capable of truly understanding how they work and how they should be policed or regulated.
  • The algorithms that process and decide what we see in our timelines and newsfeeds are built to push the most controversial and reaction-stirring posts to the fore. By designing algorithms like this, these companies are responsible for implicitly curating our information flow and pushing polarising topics, posts, and stories to the front of our collective consciousness. Tech companies are partially responsible for the polarised and hostile political climate that we currently inhabit as a society.
  • We should seek to promote ground truth and dispel misinformation in society where we can – the internet was supposed to bring about a golden age of information, yet it has caused as much misinformation as it has informed people and we must strive to build the idealised vision of the interconnected world that we once dreamed of (even if we never quite reach our goal).

Why They Shouldn’t

  • These sites are simply a platform for the exchange of ideas. The burden for truth/fact-checking should lie with the individual rather than with Facebook or Twitter. Time and resources spent by Facebook and Twitter on fact-checking and by either government or an independent regulator could be better spent on education on fact-checking, assessing sources, and critical thinking.
  • We don’t blame knife manufacturers for stabbings, so why should these companies be blamed for abuses of their systems – they are neutral arbiters and should not be encouraged to interfere in the way in which information is discussed and distributed.
  • These platforms are the modern embodiment of freedom of speech and expression – anyone with a phone and something to say can reach (at least theoretically) almost every person on the planet, this is not something that should be taken for granted or restrictedly lightly. This connection is part of what drives our modern society and will undoubtedly continue to grow as a part of our culture in the coming decades.
  • Aside from the adverts, much of the content is made up of links to other sites and these sites should be responsible for what is published by them on their own domain, not the company hosting a link to the website.
  • Free speech and the ability to discuss all ideas is crucial to the advancement of society. If something becomes “taboo”, it gets pushed off the table for discussion and is pushed underground – bad ideas need to be challenged not forgotten about.
  • It is sometimes difficult to assess “truth”. Conflicting sets of data and research must be assessed for accuracy,  should that article be removed? Censored? Flagged? Amended?

There is a discussion to be had about where the burden of truth lies, is it with the purveyor of the statement, the host or publisher of their statements (be it a newspaper, a content aggregator, a social network, or a digital media outlet), or should the burden of truth lie with us the reader. The issue of personable responsibility here is key,

Does the average person have enough time to spend pouring over the validity of news articles, facts, and research, or should we have an independent 3rd party to fact check what we read? The press regulator traditionally has the power to force apologies or ensure that news outlets were held to account and libel and defamation laws incentivised papers and TV stations to remain factual.

That’s not to say news and reporting haven’t always had bias and shown the world through their own lense, but the democratisation of information and the explosion of digital media has changed the misinformation game. “Junk News” has become an industry in itself, driven by the click-based payment structure of digital advertising and the barriers to entry in journalism have never been lower. The question here remains, whom do we trust to be the arbiter of facts? Social networks? Content Aggregators? Some form of digital press regulator? Or ourselves?

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