Experts are speculating that China's regulation of social media is the way of the future. Source: Shutterstock

Experts are speculating that China’s regulation of social media is the way of the future. Source: Shutterstock

China’s social media censorship is effective but disrupts advertisers

SOCIAL media users outside China may not have experienced any form of censorship or regulatory oversight when it comes to what they consume on platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. But that is about to change.

As a blowback to the torrents of harmful content that made its way to social media recently, governments across the globe are introducing sweeping regulations to put a stop to it.

Among them are Australia, UK, and Singapore, who have also recently have proposed for a stricter regulatory oversight on social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

While Facebook agrees that social media platform should be held accountable for their content, the censorship proposal has ignited fears of freedom of speech restrictions.

The reason social media censorship is of such great concern to businesses is that these platforms are not just a means to connect with large audiences anymore — they’re a strong and important pillar in the commercialization and monetization strategy at many large enterprises and SMEs alike.

Self-regulation gives way to self-interests

Meanwhile, allowing the industry to self regulate itself is proving to be futile. A recent media report revealed that YouTube executives, in efforts to increase user engagement have allowed its algorithms to promote hate speeches and conspiratorial videos.

Fu King-wa, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, said governments did let the industry self regulate initially. “But obviously this has not worked.”

“Now governments around the world are taking it seriously to [protect] social media in their local communities, not just from inappropriate content, but also from disinformation especially when it comes from another country.”

The UK government last week published the Online Harms whitepaper which proposed sweeping social media regulation and establishing new enforcement body. This new regulatory body will have the power to penalize companies for violating the law.

In the UK, the battle against misinformation started in 2016. They discovered that foreign agents used social media to sway the country’s Brexit referendum.

Convergences of forces make regulation difficult

The truth is, social media platforms’ structure itself makes it problematic to regulate. Traditionally, free speeches, press, advertising, and commerce existed in a separate sphere, and thus regulated separately. However, social media platforms have merged all these aspects into one.

“Platforms are kind of like vertically-integrated chimera. Like a beast, made up of many different other beasts,” said Aram Sinnreich, a professor at American University.

He explained that while one regulation might be appropriate to one type of content, say advertising, it may not be for others, such as private conversations.

Further, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow parties to target their content to specific groups of people. This makes them an effective vector to spread information but that also means they’re also open to misuse.

“The kind of disinformation campaigns we’ve seen are endemic to the platform. It cannot be stopped without changing the entire platform and business models,” said Sinnreich.

Is China’s approach most effective?

“It’s dystopian, but I think China’s [regulation method] is going to be the future,” said Sinnreich.

China deploys what is commonly referred to as the “Great Firewall” which blocks all foreign social media platforms and imposes restrictions on politically sensitive contents on platforms at home.

However, any regulation has to come with avenues for users to challenge so that the laws cannot be administered unilaterally.

According to  Lei Ya-wen, professor of sociology at Harvard University, regulating social media is a constitutional and political issue.

“One major difference between how China deals with the problem and how many other countries deal with it is whether citizens have functioning legal channels to dispute the government’s administrative decisions, judicial decisions, regulations, and laws,” said Lei.

Either way, any laws that seek to curb social media, will ultimately affect modern enterprises and business.  These businesses have come to rely on social media for marketing, advertising, and even commerce. And thus, censorship of content should not interfere with the business aspect of the social platforms.