Tech Companies and their Responsibility to the U.S. Public

Financial Times

If you’ve ever been on Twitter, Facebook, or any sort of social media in the past couple of months, you have probably seen this meme somewhere.

With so much information and “news” on social media right now, it’s hard to differentiate what is truth and what is not. Even I get confused as to what might be real or fake and have to cross check with reputable sources.

Since multiple sources called the 2020 election, former President Trump tweeted over 300 times regarding the election and COVID-19. In almost every post regarding the election and COVID-19, Twitter flagged the post, stating that “This claim about election fraud (or COVID-19) is disputed.”

In an effort to try and curb misinformation from public figures like Trump, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media platforms have been proactive in their onslaught against fake news, misinformation, and disinformation by flagging these posts as potentially disputed. They later took much more radical positions by banning Trump outright on their platforms in reaction to the Capitol riot on January 6, citing their belief that his posts violated their terms of use and that his rhetoric could result in more violence.

However, this sort of content moderation and apparent “censorship” has brought in a flurry of complaints and controversy from Congress members.

At the beginning of January, the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded its hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey focused specifically on content moderation and the policies both companies utilize in heed of the election. It was clear from this hearing that Capitol Hill was not the biggest supporter of tech corporations and their policies.

Republican senators narrowed in on the apparent bias towards conservative viewpoints on both company platforms by comparing the New York Post’s controversial article on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden with The New York Times’s similarly controversial article on Trump’s tax returns; Twitter and Facebook both censored the New York Post article while leaving The New York Times article untouched.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Democratic members called for increased moderation on the platform regarding hate speech. Democratic senator from Connecticut Richard Blumenthal asked why the Facebook account of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon was not taken down despite his suggestion to behead former member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force under President Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

In the aftermath of the Capitol riot and Trump’s absence from the social media scene, it is clear that Republicans and Democrats hold sharply contrasting views on the issue. Around 88 percent of conservatives believe that social media companies’ decisions to ban Trump’s accounts were the wrong thing to do, whereas almost 92 percent of liberals believe that these companies made the right decision. These statistics showcase that social media regulation is a highly controversial and partisan issue and should be discussed in more depth in the near future.

But regardless of party, many believe that Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms apply their policies inconsistently. In fact, many go as far as to say that these tech companies are abusing their current power by overstepping their responsibilities to the U.S. public. In a sarcastic response under Twitter account Twitter Support’s explanation on misinformation labeling, Twitter user Daniel Glenn echoed a popular sentiment.

Many believe that these tech companies do not have any social responsibility to censor misleading articles and tweets on their platforms and should “stay in their lane” regarding their work as a private corporation.

However, this sentiment is misinformed, and flat-out incorrect.

With the current popularity of social media platforms, it is clear that they are no longer what they used to be. With a low barrier for access and a proven impact on American institutions and elections, these platforms have a larger stake within U.S. society than ever before. With over 36 million Americans on Twitter and around 223 million Americans on Facebook, there is too much information being consumed to possibly quantify. This increases the potential for fake news, misinformation, and disinformation to spread over the internet and to millions of people.

The implications of fake news are clear. Public figures like President Trump post misleading information, echo chambers amplify, and people believe this misleading information and take radical and dangerous action. Therefore, it is clear that these companies have the social responsibility to censor and label misleading posts and information, especially in context of important issues like the election and COVID-19.

Inherent bias and inconsistent application of company policy is not something to be ignored. This is a separate discussion. However, using this as an argument to state that these companies do not have a social responsibility to its users and consumers is misinformed and incorrect. These companies have a responsibility to protect its platform and its consumers from misleading information that can potentially lead to catastrophic consequences. These companies, alongside us as consumers, can hopefully improve their policies and bias while protecting us from the implications of fake news.

Simon Lee is a junior at Carnegie Mellon University studying International Relations and Politics with minors in Cybersecurity and International Conflict, and Technical Writing. His interests fall between the public and private sector, creating ethical technology policy for the future, and improving technological means within the government. Outside of academics, he dances for the CMU Bhangra team, plays a lot of Warzone, and enjoys cooking!

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.