Newsworthy Content: Social media sites confirm political speech is exempt from user codes

October 28, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Facebook and YouTube have recently affirmed that they will not change how they police political content on their platforms. In fact, both organisations have hinted at relaxing censorship by raising the threshold on what politicians can say before they will be found in violation of user codes.

What does this mean?

Interestingly, politicians are breaking the site rules but are exempted because of the newsworthiness of their content. This brings into question the fundamental principle of freedom of speech, which governs the ability for people to express and articulate themselves, without fear of censorship or sanction. On the one hand, the move towards less stringent regulations highlights a respect for freedom of speech. On the other, how far should this “respect” go? Some argue that it should be limited, lest disinformation pervade and malice be incited with unregulated political information.

The regulation of political information is a sensitive issue globally. In Germany, attempts to regulate disinformation and hate speech have been met with satire. There is a thin line between information that is illegal and information that is harmful but legal. A strong political assertion, such as Donald Trump’s “retweet” on Twitter that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was partying on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, could lead to baseless and false misinformation which endanger lives.

What's the big picture effect?

With the increasingly light-touched approach adopted by social media leaderships, governments could lend a hand in strengthening regulations. This is seen in the UK, where the recent online harms white papers propose the imposition of a duty of care on any website which “allows users to share of discover user-generated content, or interact with each other online”. This duty of care would be a new statutory responsibility for organisations to take reasonable steps to protect its users. The regulation would “bite” with extensive fines against organisations that breach such a duty to users of their platforms.

Similar legislative steps have been taken by Singapore, in the form of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. The Act enables the government to curb falsehoods on the Internet.

The intensifying battle between social media organisations and governments could necessitate greater legislative action. If laws are passed in accordance with the white paper proposals in the UK, there would be a need to clearly define legislative terms. How would the judiciary measure the new “duty of care” imposed on the organisations? Should it be subjectively or objectively measured? There would be increased work for disputes departments in City law firms in such regard.

Judicial review challenges might see an increase as well. This comes with organisations and individuals who think that their freedom of speech has been disproportionately infringed. This just means that the battle to clean up public discourse on social media rumbles on.

Report written by Sherard Siahaan

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