By Laura Merritt, AOE Special Projects Manager
Last month, President Trump, citing a perceived censorship of conservative viewpoints, signed an executive order which looks to shake up how social media is regulated. The regulation of social media platforms has long been debated but this order, coupled with the President’s related tweet, has pushed the subject into the spotlight. At the heart of the matter lies a largely unknown section of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) known as section 230. This legislation, considered by some to be THE most important law protecting internet speech, essentially states that an “interactive computer service” cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. As a result, content providers like websites and social media platforms cannot be held liable for something a user posts.
At first glance, this seems quite reasonable. If John posts a comment on Facebook that is offensive to Jane, for example, should Jane be able to sue Facebook? Many would argue that the responsibility lies with John and not Facebook. It is a bit more complicated, however, particularly with the evolution of social media (driven by third-party content) over the last 25 years and the role it plays in shaping how and what we communicate. Critics argue that the protections offered these platforms by section 230 opens the floodgates for “fake news,” conspiracy theories and more. In addition, because social media sites are private companies, they can create their own policies to regulate (and even remove) content—policies that some feel are biased and deceptive. The declaration that these platforms are not publishers is being called into question. We have entered a gray area where determining what gets heard and what does not may be seen more as the role of a publisher and less as a content provider—a shift that would appear to contradict the original intent of 230.
A lot has changed since 1996 when section 230 was enacted. Social media as we know it today did not exist—Facebook would not make an appearance for another eight years. And today’s social media looks very different from even five years ago. Platforms have become hosts for many hot button topics. They have been accused of allowing “trolling” by groups intent on seeding misinformation. With the evolution of social media comes demands for change from politicians, legislators and others (from across the political spectrum) who say that modifications and restrictions to 230 are long overdue.
What does this mean for PR professionals? While we do not yet know how impactful the President’s executive order will be from a legal standpoint, the political impact could be significant. We should anticipate more demands for social media reform and more examples of sites fact-checking and commenting on user-generated content. As a result, social media platforms will likely be labeled as liberal, conservative or some other political connotation. In addition to the more obvious risks for sites being labeled (e.g. alienating users and increasing distrust), we should anticipate that one platform could be labeled differently from another. This could lead to a fractured social media landscape that will be difficult for PR practitioners to navigate. Content posted on these platforms could be politicized simply because of the site on which it appears.
Ultimately, the CDA and section 230 are extremely important for anyone practicing public relations. The debate surrounding 230 is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future. The impact to the future of the internet is immense and will affect how PR will be practiced. For now, our best course of action is to keep a close watch and be prepared for some big changes.
For a great summary of section 230, the executive order and the potential impact on PR, please check out this article posted on the Institute for Public Relations website.