Commentary by Binyamin Appelbaum
Whether or not Elon Musk ends up acquiring Twitter, his plans have caused consternation because of a simple truth: The owners of social media sites have too much power. Much of the nation’s public discourse is conducted in forums owned by Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of rival billionaires and is regulated by algorithms concealed from public scrutiny.
The oligarchs of the internet not only command larger audiences than the media barons of earlier eras; they operate under fewer constraints. That is because government has abandoned the principle that mass media companies have special obligations to society, and it has allowed a few big social networks to suffocate competition, leaving users and advertisers without practical choices or leverage.
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Government regulation, however, should not focus solely on checking the dangers posed by social media networks. Policymakers also should consider the role that social media might play in strengthening democracy. The government has a long history of imposing special obligations on mass media. The Postal Service, the original social network, carries mail from members of Congress at no charge and periodicals at reduced rates. Until the 1980s, radio and television stations were legally required to serve the public interest, including by providing evenhanded treatment of political candidates. In a 2020 report, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences argued that Congress should impose a similar public interest standard on social media sites. A simple example would be a requirement to provide geographically specific election information from verified sources.
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