Are Social Platforms Responsible for User-Generated Content?

Allegations of the Trump Administration colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election have flared up again. While that’s intriguing in its own right, it’s far more interesting to take a look at how some social media and other online businesses are behaving in the wake of this news. Facebook, for example, seems to be on the defensive.

Being an online media outlet can be rough

Facebook and other online outlets have become very defensive in the wake of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. The company has good reason to do so, since it’s been suggested Facebook may have acted as a vehicle for Russian propaganda influencing the votes of its users. Whether or not such allegations are substantiated remains up to investigative and judicial bodies, but they are certainly worth taking seriously.

However, it is not only the Russia story that can put online platforms like Facebook into awkward situations. Literally any misinformation campaign on the part of an institutional or local actor can lead to a scandal for these sorts of websites. Are sites then responsible for misinformation campaigns on their platforms?

Unregulated and unvetted content

One particular area in which misinformation campaigns thrive is advertising. This is probably the most mediated and vetted category of content on social media sites, but it is worth noting that sometimes keeping up with all inbound advertising proposals can be difficult. Things can slip through, and sneaky content can influence.

Another important source is user-generated content. Pages, posts, comments, and so forth can all be incredibly influential. Even small voices can find each other and become loud, chaotic juggernauts of influence. It does not matter if they are correct or factual, as once they’ve started they can be nearly impossible to stop. Social websites are not legally responsible for checking the validity of the claims they publish, but should they?

The problem that we may just have to deal with

I am a big advocate of doing your own research and having your own discussions. If you see something, talk about it, and think it through. Taking something at face value just because someone else said it can be dangerous.

Popular websites currently have the dilemma of whether or not they are responsible for user-generated content. I think that they should focus more attention on vetting their advertisement data and verifying sources of that data, but I do not like a world where all user-generated data needs to be approved. That too quickly lends itself to websites only publishing the ideas they agree with, regardless of fact.

I would rather live in a world where online speech freedoms are not impeded upon, but in one where we all do a better job of being a critical judge of the content we consume.