Social Media: The New Public Square?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Rohingya refugees support each other while crossing the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. According to legal action taken in the US and UK, Facebook’s amplification of and failure to remove hate speech targeting Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has facilitated the genocide of the Rohingya people, which began in 2016.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Introduction

As Internet access has increased around the world, the seemingly unlimited capabilities of social media to connect people appear to have come with many costs. Powerful tools for sharing truth can also enable lies to spread unchecked, and online communities where people come together to establish common ground can also host hate and sow division. As social media continues to dominate throughout the United States, to what extent has it become the “new public square?” What are the societal impacts of a tool that can both bring about change and fuel violence?

Facebook – How Did We Get Here?

How did Facebook, which started as a dating app, become the primary purveyor of misinformation, disinformation, violence, and hatred? 

  • Timeline: Facebook at 15: How a college experiment changed the world, CNN, February 1, 2019

Section 230

Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects social media (and other companies) from legal liability for the content posted on their websites and their moderation decisions. In recent years, lawmakers have debated whether Sec. 230 needs to be amended to protect against misinformation and disinformation. 

Jose Hernandez and Beatriz Gonzalez, the stepfather and mother of Nohemi Gonzalez, speak to the media outside the US Supreme Court on February 21, 2023 following oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google in Washington, DC. Nohemi Gonzalez died in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015.

Photo Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The New Public Square?

Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg ready to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee at the US Capitol, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Regulation Station: Should We? If So, How?

  • Can we regulate social media without breaking the First Amendment? The Verge, December 16, 202
  • On October 28, 2020, executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before a Senate subcommittee on their efforts to rein in misinformation and allegations that their businesses had an anti-conservative bias. Watch different sections of the hearing to hear questions from members of the committee and the responses from tech executives.

Point / Counterpoint

Below are select commentaries featuring additional opinions on the issue. When reading, identify the author’s key arguments and how their perspective addresses social media issues more broadly—while at first glance the pieces below may seem strictly for or against social media (free speech, regulation, censorship), the points made by each author are more nuanced.


Discussion Questions

  1. Are social media really the new public square? Why or why not?
  2. Must private companies refrain from viewpoint discrimination if they serve a public function? How should we think about laws that prohibit companies from censoring certain viewpoints?
  3. Does banning public officials from social media infringe on their Free Speech rights? How should companies balance adherence to their community standards with the interest of the public in hearing from government leaders?
  4. Is “community governance” sufficient to address content issues on scales as large as Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok? How might such an approach aid or limit Free Speech compared to what users currently do on social media sites with reporting, flagging, and other complaints?
  5. Should the U.S. government regulate social media companies? Why or why not?
  6. Should there be “democratic accountability” over companies’ content standards? Why might we not trust the government to take charge of content moderation standards? Why might we not trust the private companies to continue doing so?
  7. What lessons should we take away from how other countries are attempting to regulate social media platforms? And how do we deal with the fact that Free Speech rules online cross borders?
  8. Do you agree that the First Amendment was intended to “protect the process of self-government”? Would regulating social media hinder or help that goal?
  9. Has Congress abdicated its responsibility to the public in allowing profit-oriented tech platforms to set the rules for what people can and cannot say online?
  10. Has Sec. 230 harmed or helped Free Speech online?

Activity

Click on these themes below: Social Media + Legal Action + Artistic Expression

Discuss: What does this confluence of stories with these filters tell us about free speech issues and social media? Free speech and the ability to post online?

Tracker Entries

Themes

Categories

This course module was prepared by Grace Chisholm ’22, who majored in government and minored in Spanish and religion, ethics, and world affairs. Originally from Fairway, Kansas, Grace was an associate board member of the Georgetown University Lecture Fund and is interested in public policy and law focused on advocacy.