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Guest opinion: Don't be so quick to welcome government regulation of social media

The Dallas Morning News
Guest Editorial

 

It's clear that the government of Russia used the openness of social media giants Facebook and Twitter, as well as search engine behemoth Google, to engage in shenanigans that it hoped might influence the results of the 2016 presidential election.

Now, social media executives should do all they can to prevent it from happening again — but we think they need to give that a shot before the government steps in with regulation to solve the problem.

We certainly do not want foreign entities, especially adversaries such as Russia, attempting to influence our elections — in any way. But the initial response from the social media companies came off like a collective shrug. It's easy to see why lawmakers from both parties were less than thrilled and had stern words for the executives and hearings last week.

"I don't think you get it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we're talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare."

From the other side of the aisle: "This is about national security," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "This is about corporate responsibility. And this is about the deliberate and multifaceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power."

It is a good tack for the senators to take. The tech companies in question rely heavily on ad-generated revenue to keep operations humming along. Turning a blind eye to malfeasance by bad foreign actors reveals an institutional laziness, putting ad dollars ahead of scrutinizing who makes use of their platforms and why.

That being said, red flags went up when Feinstein said: "And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will."

We don't doubt she said this with the best of intentions. The status quo is untenable.

However, regulating social media companies — and navigating the First Amendment issues that accompany them — is not something to enter into lightly. Before Congress steps in, we should see how Facebook, Twitter and Google propose to fix this problem. 

Already, Facebook has announced stronger guidelines for transparency in advertising, including a searchable archive of political ads related to federal elections. Twitter unveiled new rules that will allow users to see how long an ad has been running and other ads produced by that advertiser.

Give these tech giants a chance to keep iterating until they get it right before we bring in the government to regulate an industry at the heart of public discourse in this nation. 

Congress is right to demand answers, and these social media companies must do all they can to ensure that they're not being used as pawns by foreign powers to influence elections. There is no wrong in applying pressure to these companies to do better.

But Congress should give them a chance to prove they're willing and able to do it. Rushing headlong into a legislative solution without due diligence may only cause more problems and, in the end, benefit those we most want to stop.

— The Dallas Morning News, Nov. 7