This article was first published on City Press on 28 November 2022
Social media – setting a dangerous precedent
Social media was initially founded and created on the premise of being a new innovative way of communicating with friends and family. Social media has evolved, alongside being a marketplace for new ideas. The main source of income that is generated by these social platforms is from the sale of advertising space.
In evolving from the initial premise of being a means of communicating with loved ones, social media companies have also had to take the role of regulators of the content that is generated on these platforms. Mark Zuckerberg has admitted during the Cambridge Analytica Congress hearings that he had never envisioned that his platform Facebook would need to take on the role of regulator, which he first created when he was in College. Despite this admission, society has placed an even greater onus on these companies to help regulate free speech and overall public discourse. This has resulted in social media bannings, and labels such as ‘this content contains misinformation’ when people are asking valid questions.
South Africa and South African courts have a liberal approach when analysing freedom of speech; the best indicator of this is the recent Julius Malema Afriforum v Economic Freedom Fighters 2022 case. Or even when Hellen Zille made comments stating that public infrastructure was better under colonialism. There are of course social consequences with freedom of expression however. In terms of honouring the efforts to create a transformative South Africa post-apartheid that allows public discourse and accountability, as well as freedom of expression, South Africa has a largely liberal approach.
This South African approach to freedom of expression is contentious. I would argue, purposefully so. There may be social consequences for statements made. However, when there is the opportunity for people to speak freely this allows meaningful discussions, and it allows people to formulate holistic opinions on matters for how our society our should evolve. This is not always the case on social media platforms.
Social media platforms generate majority of their revenue from advertisers. In 2021, Facebook generated 97% of its revenue from advertising, whereas Twitter in the same year their ad revenue was 90% of their overall revenue. As a result, these platforms need to create an environment that is friendly for advertisers, which may come at the cost of freedom of expression. This is infamously showcased with how these platforms will ban or limit access to users that are seen as potentially ‘problematic’. Sometimes, comments and posts that may raise legitimate concerns are dubbed ‘misinformation’. For instance, in 2020/2021 many individuals raised concerns about the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine, and many had their posts labelled as misinformation on these platforms. However, these concerns were found to be valid after the CDC (Centres for Disease Control) changed their definition of vaccine to provide that vaccines may not be wholly effective. Or in the recent New York Court judgement that re-instated employees on the grounds that vaccines are not wholly effective in preventing the spread of Covid-19.
Another recent example is the ‘accidentally’ published new Terms of Service by Paypal, wherein they included a clause that provided that users that spread ‘misinformation’ will be penalised on the platform. The concern is who gets to decide what is information, and at what point in the making of our history is this decided?
Due to the fickle nature of creating an environment appropriate to not just advertisers, but also trying to validly monitor discussions that are generally harmful, is a painstaking balancing act. To try and retain some control, some companies have integrated a paid subscription model, such as with YouTube, to allow creators to publish content without any fear from advertisers withdrawing support. Despite this, only 10% of users are subscribed to these services and majority of income for these platforms is still generated from advertising. The need to appease advertisers far outweighs the interests of protecting freedom of expression.
There is an emerging opinion that is also concerning: relying on the benevolence of social media corporations. In the recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, many are hopeful that this acquisition will reinforce the mainstream liberal approach to freedom of expression that many states purport to have. However, Twitter is still a company that is subject to profit expectations. Thus, Musk can easily change his opinions and steer his company in any direction.
What I am providing is that due to the conflict of interests for these media platforms, many concerns arise. Are they best equipped to decide what is necessary for steering public discourse in our countries, especially in South Africa where a lot of the ‘problematic’ ideas on social media would be largely allowed? Providing legislation for this issue would be ineffective and potentially even more troublesome in the long run, as seen during the peak of the Covid-19 with abuses of the Disaster Management Act and threats of monitoring and penalties for Covid-19 misinformation. South Africa will not always have the same political leaders in power, thus legislation could potentially have the net result of harming Freedom of Expression on social media.
Yet there still is a dangerous precedent being set by these social media platforms, if an opinion or individual is too polarising remove them from social media. I would argue that the most effective remedy to these issues, while addressing legislation concerns and still protecting freedom of expression, would be to create a policy framework that would be able to still protect the autonomy of states in guiding freedom of expression. This also emphasises and protects the evolving interests of South Africans in how we want freedom of expression to evolve.