Disputable Content and Freedom of Expression on Social Media

In an age when social media plays such a prominent role in the lives of people around the world, it is challenging for companies and government officials to regulate online content. Social media provides opportunities to express opinions and ideas, and communicate information. However, public opinion can be easily manipulated towards a specific agenda. This can undermine the democratic process by questioning the legitimacy of politicians and political institutions.

The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies’ recent report, Disputable Content and Democracy: Freedom of Expression in the Digital World, defines disputable content as “content that is not explicitly illegal but can be understood as content whose accuracy or intention is questionable, misleading, untrue, or has the potential to incite violence, criminal behavior, or generally cause harm.” Disputable content can include hate speech, misinformation, or activities that disrupt domestic affairs. Policymakers argue that the regulation of disputable content is necessary to protect users and ensure public safety. Others see it as a violation of freedom of expression. The report takes a look at five social media platforms— YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter.

Findings reveal the most challenging issue related to disputable content is the lack of a universal definition. The current guidelines of what defines misinformation and disinformation are unclear. This makes room for interpretation as to the potential harm it might cause. In addition, Social media companies having the ability to moderate their own content allows disputable content to proliferate. This ability, paired with blurry definitions of disputable content allows companies to keep the content posted in order to uphold a commitment to freedom of expression. Included are 8 policy recommendations democratic governments can use either voluntarily, or through legal means. These recommendations will assist governments in finding a balance between protecting freedom of speech and moderating harmful content.

“[W]e believe that democratic governments have the resources and ability to make progressive impacts on the content moderation agenda for online spaces, an undertaking which certain nations are already partially doing.”

For more information, check out HSDL’s Focus topics on Disinformation and Online Extremism, and documents related to social media content.

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