Is Social Media Ethical?

February 26, 2021

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The January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol reignited debate on the ethics of social media, after major platforms—including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—either banned or suspended the accounts of former president Donald Trump for his role in supporting the mob violence. With the restrictions came debate on the role of social media companies in the modern public square. Various free speech experts have offered up different interpretations of the move to deplatform the former president, whose advisors have gone so far as to say the move “threatened our democracy.” The recent events have also reignited debate on applying the First Amendment to Facebook, Twitter, and other private platforms. As the body politic continues to experience the effects of political polarization in wake of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, finding an ethical approach to social media remains a critical challenge. 

Global reactions to the deplatforming of the former president highlight how ethical issues surrounding social media are not unique to the United States. For example, the move sparked criticism of Facebook and Twitter among some commentators in China, who say censorship should be mandated by the government—not by private companies. In addition to different understandings of content moderation, there is research suggesting state-backed manipulation of social media around the world is a global threat to democracy and human rights. At the same time, however, social media has also been used by marginalized groups to mobilize global movements like Black Lives Matter and the Arab Spring. Keeping in mind the challenges—and opportunities—of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the Berkley Forum invites scholars to reflect on the ethical, sociological, and legal issues surrounding social media in global society.          

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What is the future of social media and content moderation following the deplatforming of former president Trump in January 2021? What are some of the key ethical issues around social media today? Can social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter be considered as part of the global public square? If so, what are their accompanying ethical or legal obligations? To what extent are platforms responsible for the content they post or take down? How can we reimagine social media to be a more equitable and constructive space for engagement with diverse viewpoints, while countering hate speech and other forms of extremism?

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