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Brugger: Free Speech: Security, Safety or Unlimited Freedom?

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Facebook is again in the hot seat. It is the company we love to hate. Congress and “60 Minutes” threw figurative tomatoes at Mark Zuckerberg and his company while millions watched. We have found the enemy, and he wears grey t-shirts!

Meanwhile, back in the larger world, we may have forgotten the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” Over a year ago, whistleblowers from other companies explained the dangers of social media and search engines. Zuckerberg has testified before Congress on the need for government regulation. Another way of looking at the current whistleblower’s documentation is that Facebook has researched the social harm media can inflict on its users.

Members of Congress get free publicity when they forcefully lash out against Facebook and social media. As citizens, we might begin to believe that Something. Will. Be. Done. Don’t hold your breath.

Free speech should not extend into the area of deliberate disinformation and the promotion of insurrection. We need a common conclusion about how far our legal right to free speech extends into the domain of political power. Do libel laws need to have more substantial wording? How do we punish the harm of disinformation and tell it from unintentional misinformation? Before we can regulate anything, we must understand how algorithms influence the delivery of free speech. Algorithms are the unseen manipulation of data that results in computer output. Only advanced mathematicians can decipher them. These intellectual constraints impede applicable legislation. Since our Congress has lately been more interested in playing the children’s game of King of the Hill, thoughtful consideration and research of these issues is unlikely. Everyone wants speech controlled — if it comes from the other side.

The debate about the scope of government’s control on our lives is essential to democracy. All autocratic governments contradict democracy. And they restrict oppositional thought. However, the prominent leaders from Silicon Valley and less known members of the digital workforce are calling for government regulation. There is a profit-centered motive for their petitions.

In any industry, increasing the cost of production or cutting back the value to the consumer can decrease profit if those actions decrease market share. Media is an immense industry with intense competition. Social Media competes within that space. Less prominent media focuses on gathering customers who want the disruptive information regulators are eyeing.

Media profits from its consumer, and it should. The problem has become that social media influenced its consumers to prefer harmful content. The early practitioners of advertising, public relations, propaganda, and psychological warfare could not have imagined the ease of spreading their message made possible by the internet.

Providing internet service and content, cable content, or print content is expensive. In the case of social media, there is no cost to the user. The expenses are borne by whoever wants the user’s attention. Those who have hurtful, destructive, and even subversive intent are willing to pay to get our attention because the message is spread far and wide by others they don’t pay. Eliminating damaging content is expensive. Users who object will go elsewhere. Regulation levels the field because it defines what companies must do to diminish harm. Of course, users will have no choice. Hence, the free speech debate.

Any government’s fundamental role is to provide safety and security. Because reports show that Social Media content is stirring civil unrest, content associated with disinformation is a security issue. What the government should do about bullying and psychological harm is a further dilemma.

Individuals can take action to weaken the influence of harmful messages. However, those actions require attention, time, and energy. The federal government’s intelligent control of social media can make the task easier. When our educational institutions have helped us master our critical thinking skills, false or biased reasoning is harder to sell. Taxpayers are already paying the price for Mental Health counselors in schools. Would government regulation of social media be a weapon against a student’s mental problems?

Just because regulating social media is complicated does not mean we should not restrict it. The size and monopoly power of Big Tech and media conglomerates is a different problem. We must keep our attention focused on the emerging malevolence in all media and Social Media’s role in promoting it.