Social networks are probably the most powerful communication tools of the modern age. But at what point do they stop being platforms for communication, and become the tools of hatred? And if they do become platforms for the likes of terrorists, are the networks themselves accountable? French President Francois Hollande has proposed legislation that would declare social networks “accomplices” if they do not block messages from extremists.
President Hollande spoke on this issue on earlier this week saying:
[Social networks] can no longer close their eyes if they are considered accomplices of what they host. We must act at the European and international level to define a legal framework so that Internet platforms which manage social media be considered responsible, and that sanctions can be taken.
As of yet, no legislation has been drafted, but holding social networks to account for the activities of users could be problematic. As we’ve seen with Reddit’s r/guns board public anger doesn’t necessarily institute change, and Reddit doesn’t want to give private data to outside sources.
When there is no impetus on the part of the social network to clamp down on otherwise legal behavior, forcing the removal of content can be difficult. However, there is evidence that terrorists are using social networks to further their aims. Networks can take down certain posts for violating the terms of service — graphic images, specifically threatening posts — but site wide policing is problematic at best.
Governments are quick to blame social media for its part in the proliferation of hate speech — and in some cases they’re right to. France has stricter hate speech laws than the U.S., and after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, the police made 54 arrests related to statements made about the attacks. Some of these arrests were made as a result of social media posts.
Still, there’s some irony in the French government championing free speech, while arresting social media users, and calling for laws that would force social networks to do more to remove and block inflammatory postings. The issue of the accountability of social networks comes up time and again, and the current state of U.S. law seems to indicate that holding the social media companies responsible for third-party statements is impossible.
Police around the world can and have arrested suspects for their social network activity, but holding networks accountable for unremoved posts seems like an unenforceable law. That said, Twitter already removed more than 45,000 Isis related accounts during the latter part of 2014 of its own volition, so the proposed law might not be unworkable after all.