Faustian Bargaining: Managing Speech on Social Media

Faustian Bargaining: Managing Speech on Social Media

  • Case
  • Teaching Notes

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, among others, were built with high ideals in mind: to share ideas and connect people, respectively. That arrangement quickly withered under the pressure of investors eager to capitalize on their vast potential to serve as an advertising platform and become a behavioral data-gathering tool. On the other side of the relationship, users who populate the platform have an interest in leveraging the medium to advance ideas or their brand. Followers have become the currency of the realm. To these thousands of interested spectator-participants, ideas can be proffered and product sold. The social media influencers who have developed a massive following work to keep the content fresh, edgy, and topical. Meanwhile, the social media companies earn profit from page views of followers checking in to comment on, share, “like,” and re-tweet the content posted by influencers. The alliance between platform provider and influencer is typically mutually beneficial, but not always. Exceptions arise when the content an influencer posts provokes a significant wave of hostility. At that point market pressures can materialize, often with enough vigor to force the provider into responding to the matter. This is especially the case in scenarios where “fake news” or “hate speech” appears. When these disputes arise over whether either of those designations apply, the controversy centers on the question of whether or how the platform ought to regulate the speech of its users. What are the underlying merits and liabilities of permitting free speech?

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