How has Social Media affected media regulation?
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Published: Fri, 29 Dec 2017
Traditional media regulation is becoming significantly challenged by the user-centricity that is a feature of the contemporary media environment (Van Dijck, 2013). Social media means that users are able to exercise far greater control over the types of media that they wish to consume, and can also actively produce content (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2015). The traditional approach to media regulation is that there are a relatively small number of users who produce the media, coupled with a large number of those who consume it, who are powerless to directly influence the content (Van Dijck, 2013). This means that the regulatory framework that was previously used which was founded on a command and control framework is inappropriate for a situation where there are substantial producers of content (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). Regulatory action in social media is typically focused upon disclosure of interest, protection of children, codes of practice and the prohibition of offensive material (Van Dijck, 2013). This will be investigated as follows. First, the impact of social media upon media regulation will be discussed. Secondly, the approaches to self-regulation will be considered. Thirdly, the challenge of educating users that is necessary to achieve self-regulation will be discussed. Finally, the challenges posed to greater regulation of the media will be considered.
The current model of media regulation has focused more upon the use of alternative regulatory instruments (ARIs). These are considered to be more effective in a fast-changing media environment. ARIs are defined as a collection of instruments, such as self and co-regulation, and have increased in its impact when referred by different media policy documents from the 1990s onwards (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). However, in practical terms there is less clarity on what is meant by these types of regulatory instruments (Van Dijck, 2013). There seems to be a sense in which they involve the use of non-governmental players, and stand as an alternative to the governmental approach (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). ARIs tend to refer to a regulatory framework that is distinct from the traditional form, and this tends to point towards self-regulation.
Self-regulation is often seen as a solution in which the freedom of the internet can be maintained alongside a desire to reduce the impact of legislative regulation (Van Dijck, 2013). This means that regulation is effectively enforced by a group of actors within the social media, without any influence emanating from outside the group Lievens & Valcke, 2013). Given that social media comprises the users as also those who produce media products, there is an intuitive attraction to their being involved in the regulatory procedure (Fuchs et al., 2013). Furthermore, the users of media are traditionally involved in the regulatory mechanism, such as through their representation in the bodies of public service broadcasters, or through audience research (Croteau & Hoynes, 2013). Self-regulation also provides an empowerment to the users of social media, which is consonant with their position in the social media universe (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). This allows the regulation of social media to be fitted to the features of its use.
Education is, however, a requirement for effective social media regulation in order to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of using social media are understood (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). Providing content that is against the users’ terms and conditions of the specific site is not an effective means to educate users as these are rarely read (Fuchs et al., 2013). The publicity that ensues when a social media user unwittingly commits a crime often has the impact of educating users. It has been noted, for example, that for many users of social media an understanding of the intricacies of defamation may not be as widely appreciated as is the case for the newspaper industry (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). There are thus some issues where people have been prosecuted for retweeting a defamatory statement simply because it was not widely understood that broadcasting such information could be illegal regardless of its provenance (Campbell et al., 2014). However, this publicity then at least ensures that there is a wider appreciation of what constitutes defamation in such cases and thus functions as a method of education (Fuchs et al., 2013). Furthermore, the extent to which self-regulation can apply to some of the key concerns of regulatory bodies, such as the protection of children or the removal of hate speech may be challenged (Campbell et al., 2014). There is an argument that the greater consumer choice that is exercised in the case of social media should result in a reduced level of regulation to take into account the extent to which the choice exercised by the user can play a role (Van Dijck, 2013). Consumers may thus be put in greater control of their own choices, but in order to do so, they need to be aware of the dangers that can arise through a lack of knowledge of appropriate behaviour.
Education is more commonly provided as a result of the user’s inappropriate behaviour being corrected by the social media site (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). This means that where material is posted that concerns other viewers, it may be flagged as inappropriate with the viewers being asked why they find it objectionable. The content is then reviewed by the regulatory body of the site which then can either approve or remove the content (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). This relies upon the users of the site to establish whether the material is likely to need regulating, rather than observing content individually (Van Dijck, 2013). A significant drawback of this method is that it represents an ex ante approach, allowing the material to remain online for as long as it takes to be reported (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). This means that where copyright is compromised or sensitive material is posted, the content remains public allowing for it to be copied (Buckingham & Willett, 2013). Such examples may be seen in cases where the rules are broken; where the posting is taken down on the original account, it is already too late and the information may be reposted repeatedly (Lievens & Valcke, 2013).
This characteristic of social media regulation means that the regulation of material is significantly limited, as material cannot be prevented from being broadcast by being reported as offensive (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). However, this does not extend as far as is the case for traditional media and stories that are entirely false that would not be permitted in a newspaper can be distributed freely through social media (Van Dijck, 2013). Although individuals may report them, they are often not removed unless they illustrate features that are against the terms of the use agreement (Baron, 2015). The process of reporting such content after it is published is therefore not a fully effective way to regulate content, and, moreover, involves looser regulation than is generally accepted for journalistic standards (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). At the same time, censorship is not applied on the basis that the information presented may be false and misleading (Van Dijck, 2013). Although this model does tend to empower users, the extent to which it provides an effective model of regulation can be questioned, as it cannot prevent false material from being published, as is the case for the traditional media.
The AVMS Directive was published by the European Commission in 2007, complemented by a Communication on media literacy (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). It was suggested that the promotion of media literacy was a more appropriate approach that the provision of advertising bans (Bertot et al., 2012). This has been explored particularly in cases where social media is used to develop the employees approach to social media in governmental or corporate context (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). Internal social media policies are usually created, and advice given on how best they may be used to elicit consumer or citizen engagement. However, there are divisions between how social media is used in an official capacity and the differences between how employees use social media as an individual can undermine the effectiveness of such regulation (Bertot et al., 2012). This illustrates that the trend towards self-regulation is only largely effective in the context where social media should be better understood by the user. For the majority of users, regulation is perhaps undermined by a lack of the education that has been argued as essential for its effective use.
Despite the calls for greater regulation, resistance has come from the belief that it presents significant economic opportunities. The barriers to regulation against audiovisual content on sites such as Youtube has been seen as tantamount to reducing choice for viewers (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). Parallels are drawn between how the highly regulated broadcasting environment in television in the 1980s reduced the level of choice for viewers. Furthermore, the use of social media to promote products and services provides a number of challenges to the regulatory environment in that it is not always easy to establish whether commercial activity is being undertaken by an individual for personal (Van Dijck, 2013). If an individual promotes a brand and does not conform to regulation that affects advertising, the extent to which they may be liable for omission or exaggeration poses a regulatory challenge (Evans, 2012). For example, situations where an employee represents themselves as a consumer can undermine the validity of the media regulation (Evans, 2012).
This lack of regulation can thus have significant effects on the veracity of other media. In April 2013, a bomb was detonated near the finishing line of the Boston Marathon (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). Social media played a significant role in disseminating information about the bombing, much of which was accurate. However, there was a range of misleading information that included significant factual errors. A tweet suggesting that an arrest had been made was retweeted 13,930 times and reported as fact by major news corporations (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). This is an example where the lack of regulation allowed assertions to be made, which could then circulate as fact without verification. Social media can thus perpetuate the misinformation available, and the fact that there is no regulation requiring users to only provide true material when broadcasting undermines this (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012).
A similar issue surrounding social media use is the potential for it to be used for bullying (Creech, 2013). For example, for some individuals who have been insensitive may find themselves receiving death threats, and in other contexts their home locations may be shared (Croteau & Hoynes, 2013). This means there is an apparent propensity of social media to provide a kind of mob rule. Unfortunately, because these situations escalate relatively quickly, the type of ex ante regulation that is usually applied is ineffective as it is impossible to challenge a fast moving story that is repeated thousands of times (Jewell, 2013). This means that social media challenges the traditional gatekeeping process of journalism, but is less regulated, undermining the extent to which information can be disseminated (Vardeman-Winter, & Place, 2015).
A final key area in which social media regulation is likely to pose significant challenges to the existing model of media regulation is due to its international nature (Van Dijck, 2015). Media regulation has previously allowed regulation to take place on a national basis, so material deemed unsuitable for broadcast were easily prevented. For example, allegations surrounding the royal family have often been regulated against dissemination in the UK, but are freely disseminated abroad. Social media allows such allegations to be freely disseminated (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). In many cases, traditional broadcasters can be restricted, even where they are situated abroad and are cable operators (Lievens & Valcke, 2013). Social media effectively undermines the potential for such broadcasting to take place, meaning that its effect on the regulatory environment extends to undermining existing regulation that is organised on a national basis (Van Dijck, 2013). Social media thus not only challenges the reach of media regulation in terms of its nature, it also acts to undermine the effect of existing legislation.
In conclusion, social media has had a significant impact upon on media regulation. It does not fit clearly into traditional models of regulation and this undermines how such media may be regulated. Because it can blur the edges of different media types, in that it can provide news or advertising at the same time, it can also challenge regulatory frameworks based upon such media remaining discrete. Self-regulation is suited to the nature of the media, but poses significant challenges to existing regulatory frameworks, as it does not prevent the dissemination of sensitive or false material; it simply allows it to be removed ex ante. Social media also undermines the extent to which existing regulatory frameworks may be conducted on a national basis as any information that is disseminated is thus available globally. These features have effectively reduced the impact of regulation and thus far the focus on self-regulation has done little to prevent the whole-scale diminution of media regulation.
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