US tech giants such as Facebook are being held to account for their vast influence over the news industry, as governments around the world consider more stringent regulation. Last month, Facebook came under fire for its decision to block news from being shared on its platform in Australia after the government introduced new legislation that would force the company to pay publishers for content. Following subsequent negotiations with the Australian government, Facebook revoked the ban and restored content to its platform after “a number of changes and guarantees” were agreed over the proposed law. However, the feud has highlighted the growing influence of social media companies and their impact on the global media landscape.
In recent months, US tech companies have come under wider scrutiny on both sides of the political spectrum after failing to block harmful content. When these companies finally took action, right-wing politicians then accused them of suppressing free speech. Social media organisations banned Donald Trump after he made unfounded claims about voter fraud in the aftermath of the November 2020 presidential election, which culminated in his supporters storming Capitol Hill. Mr Trump’s subsequent social media ban fueled right-wingers’ claims that social media companies are biased against their politics, and has contributed to the growing popularity of alt-right platforms such as Parler. Mr Trump’s team also recently announced that his own social media site would be launching later this year.
The ban has had further political ramifications around the world as various governments, many of whom shared close relations with the former US president’s administration, have taken advantage of the environment of heightened criticism against social media companies to restrict freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cracked down on dissent on Twitter as it continues to grapple with the anti-government farmers’ protests. Authorities in Russia have taken similar steps against social media companies in the wake of protests calling for the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The Hungarian government is introducing a bill to parliament, that according to justice minister Judit Varga, will prevent social media companies from “limiting the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions,” whilst the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland is proposing similar measures.
Amidst growing scrutiny, Twitter and Facebook have taken steps towards self-regulation, creating new features to flag “fake news,” more important than ever in the face of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Facebook has established an Oversight Board, consisting of lawyers and human rights experts, which has made rulings on their first cases, setting in motion new policies around content moderation.
As social media companies face a barrage of criticism from all sides, also illustrated by the numerous appearances the respective Facebook and Twitter CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have made in front of US congressional committees, tech companies are forced to walk a fine line between countering harmful disinformation and infringing on peoples’ rights to freedom of speech. Whilst governments in the UK, Canada and EU consider similar legislation to Australia’s, a coordinated international approach protecting both the integrity of the news industry and citizens against disinformation could soon be on the horizon.