The advent of new media has brought about so many changes in the society. In the communication sector, it has democratized content production and distribution as well as broken the hegemony of the traditional mass media of communication (Sule & Ridwanullah, 2021; Ridwanullah & Bala, 2022). The social media platforms have also helped in engendering democratic tenets and provide platforms for fulfilling some important principles of democracy – freedom of expression, public participation, plurality and inclusion. Public discourse and public opinion formulation have now transmogrified from its traditionally gate-kept, professionally mediated, ethically defined, morally curated, and horizontally formatted to more audience-centric, people generated, and often times, obnoxious, riddle with fake news, hate speech and misinformation.
This is the reality in today’s world. This reality prompted the UNESCO to declare in 2017 that we are in a critical time which requires critical mind. There can be no better time to regulate the social media than now when media access is at an accelerated rate. On daily basis, digital penetration kept increasing, number of mobile phone users skyrocket and bandwidth subscription on the rise. Conscious efforts must be made to regulate social media platforms and combat the rise of fake news and misinformation on the social media space. Which direction should the regulation take – internal or external regulation?
Social Media and Self-Regulation
The constant rise of fake news and misinformation is not unrelated with the level of freedom of speech in the society. This scenario has played out in the past. The libertarian tendency of the media space in western democracies set the stage for the current abuse of freedom available in the society. History has shown that social responsibility theory wouldn’t have been propounded if the supposition of John Milton on ‘free market place of idea’ had not failed the test of time. The Hutchen’s Commission report that gave birth to the social responsibility theory, an effort to salvage the media industry from returning to the era of government regulation – authoritarianism (Baran & Davis, 2014).
No doubt, the priority of any media is to break news or provide information. Providing consumers with what they want is a specialty of the new media industries, even when doing so could have unfavourable long-term effects. Baran and Davis (2014) argued that this trend is evident in the ongoing debates around offensive and hateful online communication. The connections to other traditional social institutions that foster or demand social responsibility do not exist in new media, in contrast to the “established” conventional media. These new media technologies and the companies that built up around them to provide reliable supplies of appealing content had to replace earlier businesses and modes of communication as each of them developed. As individuals adapted to social media and its content, social roles and relationships frequently underwent significant disruption. The majority of these issues seemed difficult to foresee.
One of the earliest comprehensive sociological studies of television’s effect on American life, for instance, revealed meagre evidence of disruption in the 1950s. One of the most significant changes brought about by television, according to the study, was that people no longer spent as much time playing cards with friends or extended family. Contrarily, nuclear families actually spent more time together, engrossed in the spectral shadows of small televisions. They conversed with friends and neighbors less frequently (Baran & Davis, 2014).
According to research conducted by Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edwin Parker (1961), towns with television actually had higher rates of library use and lower sales of comic books than those with only radio. These results suggested that television would be a good thing, given the enormous mistrust that the public had of comic books in the 1950s. This tendency is still evident today, as proponents of the idea that the Internet will ultimately result in a return to more participatory democracy confront detractors of contentious internet. While supporters of the Internet applaud the ability of social networking sites and instant messaging to keep people linked, some Internet cynics fear that it may promote social isolation.
As media enterprises develop, they frequently grow more socially conscious, more prepared to regulate or restrict the dissemination of contentious material, and more interested in meeting long-term societal demands than in stoking momentary popular passions. According to cynics, accountability is only achieved when it will increase rather than hinder profit-making; in other words, accountability is only possible when fierce competition gives way to oligopoly—a small number of surviving businesses agree to stop competing and carve up the market and the profits. In this case, businesses can focus on public relations and stop using the most inflammatory content generation techniques (and, incidentally, ward off formal regulation) (Baran & Davis, 2014).
This paper argues that social media platforms can self-regulate and redeem their image. Historically, two of the most influential yellow journalists in the 1920s succeeded in doing just that, changing so drastically that their names came to be associated with good journalism rather than dishonest reporting. The professionalization of journalism and the upgrading of the industry’s ethical standards are often linked (and rightfully so) to the Pulitzer Prize and the Hearst Foundation’s work (Baran & Davis, 2014). The American Society of Newspaper Editors was established during this decade as well, and its renowned Canons of Journalism included a commitment to “tell the truth about the news” (Schramm, 1960, pp. 623–625). A careless new media sector has matured and changed. Once more, this procedure is still in use today.
The majority of the main Internet content providers proudly declare their commitment to assuaging public concerns about privacy and decency while voluntarily submitting their websites to evaluation and coding related to well-known and publicly distributed content-rating software. After being acquired by Google, YouTube started to carefully monitor content submitted to its website and has significantly increased the quantity of information it eliminates or to which it restricts access, thus becoming less “guerilla” and more legitimate (Baran & Davis, 2014). Twitter and Facebook have also put in mechanism to flag information that seems to be misleading with the caption “this claim about (subject of the misinformation) is disputed”. In some instance they take it down completely. This a step in the right direction.
In the history of mass media, every new media grows through an existential battle and fierce competition that challenged or went beyond moral and ethical lines. As Baran and Davis (2014) opine, the 1930s saw a lot of discussion over cinema censorship. It was regularly and widely argued for government control over radio. Each industry developed over time and eventually carved out a specific niche in the market for media content as a whole. Each created codes of ethics and guidelines for implementing these rules. These nascent enterprises faced substantial concerns of governmental regulation and censorship in almost every instance. In reaction, they choose to practice internal regulation and self-censorship rather than submit to external regulation. Of course, their internal regulation was less onerous than any external regulation, and the consequences for breaking it were less severe. Another significant reshaping of the media occurred in the 1950s with the quick spread of television. Today, media are being transformed by yet another powerful set of communication technologies. Through these social media platforms, personal computers and smart phones are used to deliver nonstop information flow.
If the social media platforms failed to fully self-regulate, are users capable of building critical mind? Is external regulation a good thing for social media platform? Will regulation portend doom for users and owners of these platforms? Can government afford to keep quite in the face of this cacophonous trend? These and many more are questions begging answers among intellectuals. Already, UNESCO has provided preliminary direction on the need for good journalism and having critical mind as well as internal regulation move by social media platforms. Will that be enough to combat these anomaly? So far social media contents remain user generated, how effective can internal regulation be? Will holistic, inclusive, citizen driven regulatory policy help sanitize the Eugene stable? The answer is still unknown, what is however apparent is that, fake news and misinformation cannot be left unchecked. No government will fold its hand and miss the opportunity of killing two birds (critics and misinformation) with one stone.
Baran, S. J. & Davis, D. K. (2014). Mass communication theory: Foundations, ferment, and future. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Ridwanullah, O. A. & Bala, A. R. (2022). Media convergence and the change in media content production and distribution in Nigeria. Journal of Media, Culture and Communication. Vol. 02, No. 04. http://journal.hmjournals.com/index.php/JMCC.
Schramm, W. (1960). Mass communication. University of Illinois Press.
Schramm, W., Lyle, J. & Parker, E. (1961). Television in the lives of our children. Stanford University Press.
Sule, Y. S. & Ridwanullah, O. A. (2021). Media convergence: Prospects and challenges for public relations practice in Nigeria. American Journal of Multidisciplinary Research in Africa, Vol. 1(3), pp. 1-8.
Mr. Abdulhameed Olaitan Ridwanullah is a Lecturer II at the Department of Mass Communication, School of Art, Management and Social Science, Skyline University Nigeria. He had his first and second degrees from the Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano