FEATURE ARTICLE

Regulating Social Media:

Who Elected Jack Dorsey ?

The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government -

Abraham Lincoln

On 8 January, Twitter banned the then sitting President of the United States from its platform. Just over a month later, this conversation, much like Trump, has all but disappeared. We may all be ready to forget Trump, but it is unwise to ignore the broader impact of the Twitter ban.

Social media has irreversibly changed society. As we enjoy its myriad benefits, we must also make sure it operates consistently within liberal democratic norms. Left unchecked, social media poses a clear and present danger to how we govern ourselves.

Political Power vs Political Influence

In liberal democracies, political power should only be exercised by political institutions. Those political institutions are the three branches of government: the executive, legislature and judiciary. Think of them as an impenetrable bubble containing all the political powers to govern.

However, political power is quite separate from political influence. Individuals and entities outside the bubble can legitimately influence how those within the 'bubble' exercise political power.

Buying advertisements, lobbying an elected representative, or donating to a candidate are all examples of influencing those who wield political power. But they are not examples of exercising political power.

The difference is important; a fundamental tenet of democracy is that citizens can remove those who exercise political power via free elections.

Quite clearly, a president has political power. It follows then that curtailing a president's ability to communicate must also be a political decision. And there are plenty of legitimate ways to regulate a president's behaviour, from internal party discipline all the way through to impeachment.

When Twitter banned Trump from its platform, it did not simply influence the exercise of political power (e.g. lobbying Congress to impeach the President); Twitter inappropriately exercised political power.

Social media executives are not elected, cannot be popularly removed, and are not in any way bound to the interests of the people. Normalising the 'Twitter ban' is to accept the exercise of political power by private groups of unaccountable people, which poses a long-term threat to liberal democracy.

John Fowler is the founder of International Intrigue, a weekly foreign affairs and business newsletter. In a world of increasing volatility and risk, every business leader will need to understand the big trends in geopolitics, technology and business. International Intrigue delivers key insights in a  fun and enjoyable way – understanding the world should never be boring! John is a former diplomat, and international lawyer, and is completing his MBA at London Business School. To subscribe to International Intrigue, click here.

John Fowler

(MBA2021)

The real problem is that social media is unique

Boil things down to fundamental truths, and then reason up from there. Don’t rely on reasoning by analogy -

Elon Musk

Donald Trump was a human stress test for liberal democracy. But the fundamental problem is that social media has moved society into a new paradigm that we can't yet fully comprehend.

We need to resist our desire for immediate certainty and our urge to instantly analyse-by-analogy. Contrary to many journalistic hot takes, social media is not like print media, or a publishing house, or a town square, or anything else. It does not fit neatly into our pre-arranged conceptual frameworks for understanding societal dynamics.

I don't dare offer an explanation of what social media is, if for no other reason than it isn't just one thing. Consider that at any instant, Facebook is 2.8 billion different combinations of information, products, actions and reactions. These combinations are also constantly changing at every second of every day.

None of this is to say social media is bad, quite the opposite. We have just never seen anything like social media before.

Our bias toward action

When it was to their advantage, they made a forward move; when otherwise, they stopped still -

Sun Tzu

There is a significant risk to formulating regulation without fully understanding the potential unintended consequences.

Banning Trump may have felt like a win for democratic institutions against the powers of autocracy. In reality, it was a knee-jerk decision made in response to an opaque and rapidly evolving situation with many unknowns.

When we perceive urgency, as our current media cycles constantly encourages, doing nothing feels akin to abrogating responsibility. We understandably implore those with power to 'do something, anything!'.

The truth is that normalising political decisions made by unaccountable executives is antithetical to hundreds of years of liberal democracy, mid-crisis or otherwise.

After all, there will be more crises, and the next time we might not like the decisions that get made.

Innovative regulation is required and the private sector must be involved

There is an extraordinarily important role to be played by regulation and independent or non-profit institutions. I don’t think companies alone can do this right -

Sundar Pichai

This said, it is clear that social media must be regulated. But to do so, we must first rebuild models of how our societies work. That is difficult and technical work that cannot be done by governments alone.

Too often, regulation is developed in silos by politicians laser focused on big political targets, and ignores broader second order effects. Widely criticised efforts to regulate the internet like Europe's GDPR laws, or a recently proposed US bill that would remove immunity for social media platforms, suggest that governments lack the technical and strategic understanding of social media to appropriately regulate it.

Even worse, in these cases government developed the regulations in an adversarial environment, bending a resistant 'big tech' to its will. That is a recipe for poor regulation, when what is needed is a united approach to tackle a common danger.

A common danger unites even the bitterest enemies -

Aristotle

It is now time for the private sector to rise above growth strategies and short term profits to solve a far larger problem. It is time for the rubber of endless environmental, social and corporate governance posturing to meet the road of tangible action:

  • Corporations must use their influence to educate lawmakers about how the business of social media and the internet works.

  • Professional services firms must develop financial, economic and strategic models to analyse the possible models of regulation.

  • Lawyers must propose new legal frameworks designed to incorporate the unique dynamics of social media within our existing political and governance structures.

  • Academics and public intellectuals must help us all understand precisely what social media is and where it is leading us.

They must do these things without waiting to be asked - the current climate suggests politicians will not coordinate these contributions. Put simply, it is time for the private sector to step up and use their political influence to ensure that the private sector can never again exercise political power.

London Business School Tech & Media Club