The Electronic Hydra

How are social networks, which are a notorious source of disinformation and incitement to hatred, to be regulated? This is mission impossible in the United States, where the First Amendment reigns supreme. It was therefore the European Union, this past April, that produced the world’s first attempt to civilize Facebook, Twitter, and their companions, in the form of the Digital Services Act.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

Intellectuals would like to believe that ideas rule the world. On the other hand, for Marxists, ideas exist only as the window dressing of power relations between social classes. How are we to decide between these opposing theses? We probably can’t, and neither of these two views accounts for the decisive role of chance. After all, the coronavirus led to changes in our collective life – working from home, for example – that no one had foreseen. Another factor that idealists, materialists, and others fail to account for adequately is the role of technological innovation, notably when it favors the circulation of ideas. Without the Gutenberg printing press, Luther would not have been able to convince Christians to read the Bible without the intermediary of the clergy. So was it Gutenberg or Luther who invented Protestantism? Would the revolutions that transformed Europe and America in the 18th century have happened without the diffusion of the written word Maybe not.

This leads us to the present and to the new dominant medium, that is, social media. “But we are not media!” claim the owners of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram. These are supposed to be only platforms, where users freely express themselves and are solely responsible for what they say. This unpersuasive defense allows social media to evade the national regulations that hold traditional media responsible for their content. In the U.S., this line of defense appeals to the Constitution, which guarantees total freedom of expression, except in the case of inciting violence. Since all these new media are from the United States, we Europeans are in fact living in an American era. This would not be so serious if social media platforms were neutral in their content and in their societal effects.

However, we know that they favor the surge of appeals to violence, conspiracy theories, and racist, homophobic, and antisemitic prejudices. Donald Trump is an avatar of the electronic media; he was very much aware of this and caused the media’s role in government to grow, tweet by tweet. Since there is no way to distinguish truth from falsehood on social media, in the absence of regulation, we must recognize the direct relationship between the rise of populism and the replacement of the press by Facebook and Twitter. Barack Obama has recently condemned the danger that social networks represent for democracy, and Joe Biden is considering regulation, but this will be difficult in the United States because of the First Amendment. It is therefore from the European Union that the first attempt to civilize the electronic hydra has emerged.

The European Parliament and Council have adopted the Digital Services Act. This will enable European authorities to require accountability from the main social media platforms (for now, those with more than 45 million users in the E.U.), especially concerning their methods for moderating appeals to violence. In fact, the biggest networks already moderate excessive content and employ thousands to assist with this task. These checks only happen after publication and struggle to prevent the viral circulation of hateful messages. And what are the moderators’ criteria? Former employees of Facebook have denounced its practices, which favor the most aggressive content because it provokes the most reactions and increases the number of users and thus advertising profits.

Verbal violence is the engine driving the prosperity of social media. The Digital Services Act will not reverse what is the very nature of every individual’s free expression, but it will allow European authorities to be informed of algorithms used by these platforms to moderate hatred or incite controversy. The E.U. may also inflict significant fines, up to 6% of the annual revenue of guilty businesses (the equivalent of 4.2 billion dollars in the case of Facebook). As one of the drafters of the law, European Commissioner Thierry Breton, stated, there is no reason to allow social media to encourage behaviors that are outlawed in European countries.

Some will say that all of this smacks of state censorship against private media companies. This is true, and I am not sure that the Digital Services Act will prove effective; it might, in particular, encourage the flight of hateful content to smaller, uncontrolled platforms. But this legislation at least alerts the public to the true nature of social media platforms, that is, to the fact that they traffic in unverified information, whereas traditional media, with their journalists, publish facts. It is therefore up to the reader to exercise his or her discernment.

Elon Musk eventually backpedalled on his Twitter buyout in early July. Who can blame him? He would have needed an army of moderators to manage the outbursts of Donald Trump, one of the most excessive conspiracy theorists, as the tech billionaire had planned to restore his account (the former president was banned from the platform on January 8, 2021, in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol).


Editorial published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.