New polls suggest America is fed up with social media, tiring of platform overreach, invasions of privacy, politically inspired content manipulation, lack of fairness, secret algorithms, and protection from civil liability – involving acts for which others get held accountable. Popular discontent may be coming to a head – and could produce unexpected results.
On the data, America’s patience with social media is thinning. Less than a year ago, Pew Research reported: “About two-thirds of Americans (64%) say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today” and “just one-in-ten Americans say social media sites have a mostly positive effect on the way things are going.” See, e.g., https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/15/64-of-americans-say-social-media-have-a-mostly-negative-effect-on-the-way-things-are-going-in-the-u-s-today/.
Since then, trust, respect, and satisfaction with social media have plummeted. As social media sites became political in 2020, removing users, confronting censorship allegations, congressional pressure, and legal scrutiny, user growth plateaued, in some cases fell. See, e.g., https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-supporters-flock-to-niche-social-media-sites/a-56233761; https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2021/04/07/pew-social-media-survey-facebook-youtube-gen-z-instagram-snapchat-tiktok/7107392002/.
Clear to most is the unsatisfactory status quo. While Americans continue to use social media, the venue is now “backlash central.”
With social media reinforcing the idea that America is identity groups, not individuals, conflict is everywhere. We seem sliced and diced, divided by the left, pitted against each other, encouraged to take offense, cancel, boycott, dismiss, and disown. None of that is healthy – and we know it.
Of course, class warfare – or some variation based on differences – is not new. New is the alliance between a leftist Democrat Party and leftist social media.
When you ask most Americans, the majority center, center-left, center-right, or right, you find they are not happy.
The big question is – what can be done? The answer is six things.
First, social media can be held accountable by Congress through the repeal of Section 230. Congress could repeal or drastically curtail unjustified liability protections in that arcane “Section 230” – part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
The core argument is internet companies no longer need protection, having grown from small to giant. Moreover, they are acting in ways that warrant repeal. Congress cannot allow companies to take an individual’s First Amendment rights or vicariously regulate speech.
While repeal would be nice, permitting damages, do not expect this solution soon. Bills have been introduced, but common sense says a Democrat Congress will not kill the “goose that laid the golden egg.” Why make a pollical ally liable?
In 2021, more than 20 bills aim to change Section 230, but no one expects it eliminated. Remember, Trump tried to redline the section in 2020, and a Republican Senate tried to force repeal in the 2020 COVID bill, all to no avail. That said, some revisions to liability could occur – and would be welcome. See, e.g., https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/mcconnell-ties-full-repeal-of-section-230-to-push-for-2000-stimulus-checks/ar-BB1ckfimhttps://slate.com/technology/2021/03/section-230-reform-legislative-tracker.html; https://thehill.com/policy/technology/537524-democratic-senators-introduce-bill-to-limit-power-of-section-230.
Second, states can take concerted legal action. Front and center are antitrust suits against social media. This option offers fresh hope for accountability, as 48 attorneys general have already filed antitrust actions against social media, arguing unlawful monopoly. See, e.g., https://finance.yahoo.com/news/facebook-antitrust-lawsuit-193839255.html. The Federal Trade Commission is also pressing that angle. See, e.g., https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-hit-with-antitrust-lawsuit-by-federal-trade-commission-state-attorneys-general-11607543139.
Other state lawsuits are possible. One approach pursued by some – which cuts both ways – is demanding content clarification or correction. See, e.g., https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-vaccine-disinformation-twitter-facebook-state-attorneys-general/; https://www.9and10news.com/2021/03/25/michigans-attorney-general-calls-for-stronger-stance-against-disinformation-on-social-media/. These suits are not likely to give much satisfaction; they are more like a slow boat to China, but they are a start.
Third, states can push legislation bringing social media to heal, especially with tax policy. They can push accountability for overreach, content manipulation, one-sided political action, and monopoly by stripping social media of tax incentives and imposing penalties. See, e.g., https://www.bisnow.com/national/news/commercial-real-estate/can-red-state-lawmakers-stop-social-media-censorship-by-ending-cre-tax-incentives-107703.
Fourth, states can open investigations. Texas recently opened one into a social media platform – seeking information on “de-platforming” for political views. That approach could produce results, as social media feel that sting.
They are responding with efforts to quash the investigation. See, e.g., https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/08/twitter-texas-ken-paxton/.
Fifth, a novel approach not yet pursued but possible is the use of “private attorney general” states. These actions involve individual or group suits for everything from antitrust to statute violations. While social media might throw up Section 230, the idea of “private attorney general” suits is “benefiting the public interest … not just plaintiff.”
“Private attorney general” suits against social media could be framed as statutory entitlements, ranging from antitrust, civil rights, and employment discrimination to creative RICO actions.
More than 60 statutes offer this remedy. Filing is less burdensome than initiating, for example, a class action suit.
Finally, we have rights and options as individuals.
We can vote with our digital feet, find alternatives, seek to encourage accountability through state and federal leaders, choose not to be part of cancel culture.
Truth is, free speech is central to who we are, how we stay who we are, and how we solve problems. Most Americans think social media is highly negative, not helping us solve problems, just creating more of them. One answer is to stay positive.
Bottom line: Americans are not happy with the status quo when it comes to social media – and that means expect change. When popular discontent hits a certain level, Americans look for options. They are looking now. Count on it.