Are social media companies platforms or publishers? And why does it matter?

Social media is hugely influential in today’s world, with nearly ¾ of internet users engaged with social media in some form. In fact, more than two thirds receive news from social media, with almost half, according to Pew Research Centre, getting news from social media “often” or “sometimes”.

With so many people using social media as a source of information, debates have begun to rage, as high up as the United States congress (with President Trump even weighing in on the issue) over the role that these companies play in the dissemination of this information. What it boils down to is this question: are social media company’s platforms or publishers?

So what is the difference, and why does it matter? The issue focuses on how social media companies distribute their content, and just how much responsibility over what that content is. In short a platform is a company or technology that simply enables communication and distribution of information, whilst a publisher is a company or person that curates and distributes content.

The difference between a platform and publisher might just sound like semantics, but the difference between the two has huge legal implications. Your phone company, for example, as a communications platform, can’t get in trouble for the things you say on the phone, but they also can’t turn off your line for saying things you they don’t like. A newspaper on the other hand, as a publisher, can be sued if they write something that isn’t true, but they have the power to pick and choose what appears in their paper. 

Mark Zuckerberg once claimed that “Facebook was just a ‘social utility,’ a neutral platform for people to communicate what they wished”, and social media has been operating under that assumption for some time. So, as a platform, social media gain all the legal protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act; they can’t be sued for any of the content, no matter how slanderous of factually incorrect, that appears on their websites. However, it also means they can’t be seen to be moderating content, something which, given the rise of various forms of dubious information spread on these networks, there have been increasing calls for them to do.

This debate would appear to be coming to a head, with big names in social media such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai all appearing before the United States Congress to face questions regarding how they handle and moderate content, and whether or not the protections they have so far enjoyed should stay in place. Whilst it would appear that little progress has been made on reaching a final conclusion on this subject, with such high profile involvement this issue certainly isn’t going away any time soon.


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