Freedom in Security: Why Regulation of Social Media and Online Platforms Is Needed

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“Telegram, from a national security perspective, is definitely a problem. This must be understood. In addition, I am absolutely against the suppression of freedom of speech. But this is already too much. That is, in our country, any person can create a channel, start writing whatever they want on it, and then hide behind the fact that it is the freedom of the mass media. But this is not media freedom, it is called a little differently,” said Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence, during the KyivStratCom Forum 2024.

Such statements always cause considerable resonance within society. This is not surprising: according to sociologists, 49% of Ukrainians believe that state control of information in Internet sources will only lead to restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens, and 44% believe that it is necessary to protect against the enemy. However, such a dilemma is not entirely correct, since control over the information space does not necessarily contradict rights and freedoms, but often even promotes them.

“New media” and old problems

The main argument of those who advocate for “the absolute freedom of the Internet” is that any control is perceived as censorship, the introduction of rules that set guidelines on what can be covered and how it should be covered in the media, and other anti-democratic measures. But let’s try to adapt this logic to classical media. Let’s imagine a magazine, the columns of which do not indicate either the author team or the address of the publication, and most of the materials are not even signed. So, it is unknown where it is printed, who owns it, who heads the editorial office, etc. Such a publication would look at least suspicious and would hardly win the trust of the public. Meanwhile, anonymous Telegram channels and pages on social networks often gather tens of thousands, or even millions of subscribers, who for some reason do not ask themselves the question of who exactly is telling them the daily news.

Data from the survey conducted on March 3-12, 2024, by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation together with the Centre of Political Sociology commissioned by the UA Recovery Window Media Network

According to the current legislation, the media are responsible not only for spreading Russian propaganda, but also for many other violations. Due to this, as well as internal self-regulation within the journalistic environment, no mass media can publish puff pieces, slander, unbranded advertising and the like with impunity.

You don’t want fines and sanctions? Do you want to be in the white list of responsible media? Please follow the rules. Most importantly, these rules are written in the interests of the end user, that is, the audience. It is they who seek to be protected from the selfish activities of unscrupulous media. On the other hand, Ukrainian Telegram channels, which are not subject to any regulatory mechanisms, easily make money from hidden advertising and commissioned publications, manipulating public opinion for the sake of enrichment.

But the mentioned mechanisms protect the reader not only from puff pieces. Objective and unbiased coverage of events, balance of opinions, separation of judgments from facts, verification of information—all these are not empty slogans, but important principles, the refusal of which instantly turns the media into a cesspool. How would you like to read an “investigation” in which only the position of the suspect in corruption is presented, while the evidence against the person is declared inconclusive? How would you like a report where the story is twisted, and half the characters are made up? What if the news feed consisted half of the gossip heard by a “journalist” on a trolleybus? The fact that the mentioned rules are violated does not mean that they are unnecessary. Again, the rules work primarily for the benefit of the audience, setting mandatory standards for the media and journalists.

Regulation day

The development of the Internet and the emergence of new technological possibilities have led to the fact that millions of people have been given the opportunity to create their own content, and this is certainly wonderful. But over time, along with the “old media,” “new” ones appeared: social networks, Internet radio, YouTube channels, Telegram channels, etc. They became a source of information for huge audiences: for example, today the majority of Ukrainians learns news from YouTube, Telegram channels, Facebook. The “new media” actually took over the function of the “old” ones but did not undertake to comply with the relevant work rules, i.e., compliance with content quality standards.

This triggered discussions about the need to regulate “new media.” This issue became especially acute after the 2016 U.S. elections, during which Russia actively influenced American public opinion through social platforms. Later, laws regulating social media were passed in Germany, Australia, Canada, and several other countries. Since then, the construction of a legal ecosystem designed to regulate new media has not stopped. Thus, in the summer of 2022, the European Union adopted the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which regulate the activities of technology companies in the European market and also close some loopholes for the spread of fakes.

Unfortunately, regulation does not always work. When the Russian social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as a number of other Internet resources, were blocked in Ukraine in 2017, part of the society perceived it negatively as a restriction of freedom. However, this step was forced because these resources were not only a platform for propaganda, but also a source of personal data for Russian special services about Ukrainians. Today, it has been proven that even the extremely popular Telegram messenger carries a whole series of real threats. It is connected with the Russian Federation financially and technologically, and is also very favoured by the Russian special services, which can, for example, gain access even to deleted messages in the messenger. Hence, the discussion of the idea of blocking Telegram, which, unfortunately, is often presented as an “attack on freedom of speech” or even as an attempt to follow the example of totalitarian Russia.

However, calling the blocking of certain Internet sites a sign of “dictatorship” is an outright manipulation. For example, the United States cannot be considered a dictatorship. However, in early March 2024, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would pave the way for TikTok to be blocked. It is assumed that the company ByteDance, which owns the service, will be obliged to sell it to a non-Chinese owner within six months; otherwise TikTok will be blocked in the U.S. Such a decision can hardly be called popular because the service is used by about 150 million Americans, spending almost an hour a day on TikTok. But lawmakers are guided by security considerations: the TikTok app can be used to collect data and manipulate public opinion in the interests of the Chinese government.

Freedom in security

Therefore, the regulation of online platforms has long been a normal global practice and is dictated by the objective security needs and interests of the audience. Unfortunately, the “absolute freedom of information” that Internet enthusiasts of the last century believed in turned out to be an illusion. A good example is what happened to the social network X (Twitter), since Elon Musk began to change the policy of the platform in accordance with the principle of “unconditional freedom of speech.” According to research by the European Commission, the destruction of security standards has led to the fact that X has become much more comfortable for Russian propaganda. The analytical center DFRLab also recorded an active growth of subscribers to Chinese and Iranian propaganda resources. It hardly has anything to do with true freedom of speech.

We have already seen how destructive and sometimes literally deadly propaganda can be. Informational aggression is not a metaphor but an objective and threatening reality. Therefore, regulation of the Internet space, and sometimes restrictive measures, is a forced necessity. Equally important is the normalization of the activity of resources that actually perform the role of the media. Quick and simple solutions are impossible here, but there is no other way: this is the only way to protect the interests of information consumers and protect them from the unprofessionalism and dishonesty of the newest actors in the media space.

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