The Challenge of the 21st Century: Social Media Regulation

April 7, 2019



The advent of new technologies like social media brings along both advantages and disadvantages, but politicians from all over the world are mainly concerned with the latter.


The media plays a crucial role in the conduct of elections and their outcomes, since they both provide relevant information and act as an intermediary through which the candidates are going to reach the targeted audience. One would think that such a powerful tool should be impartial, grating to all the candidates an equitable podium; in fact, basic standards of journalistic integrity are accuracy, fairness, impartibility and respect of privacy rights. However, this is not always the case.


Several times, during his electoral campaign and later on during his mandate as the president of the US, Donald Trump has talked about fake news defining them “the enemy of the people”.


Back in 2016, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker called on social media companies to increase their effort in order to fight against the widespread problem of fake news spread via their platforms, especially in relation to politics and the upcoming elections.


Although the regulation of the electoral process lies primarily within the competence of the Member States, the relevance of the matter clearly seems to require a shared European approach, as recommended in Junker’s warning. In particular, three main documents have been issued to fully address this topic.


The Code of Practice on Disinformation has been developed by a group that consists of organizations involved in online platforms, social networks, advertisers, and the advertising industry. Its aim is to reduce online disinformation in five areas: demonetizing online advertising, requiring a clear identification of political adverts, closing down fake accounts and bots, reducing the risks of social media ‘echo chambers’ (i.e. situation in which one is only exposed to opinions that are parallel with their own) and making data from platforms available to researchers to monitor online disinformation.


The Action Plan against Disinformation foresees an increase of resources devoted to tackle disinformation, including the creation of Rapid Alert Systems. In this occasion, the High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini said: “Healthy democracy relies on open, free and fair public debate. It's our duty to protect this space and not allow anybody to spread disinformation that fuels hatred, division, and mistrust in democracy. As the European Union, we've decided to act together and reinforce our response, to promote our principles, to support the resilience of our societies, within our borders and in the neighborhood. It's the European way to respond to one of the main challenges of our times." 


The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), adopted in April 2016, is a regulation on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union and the European Economic Area. The GDPR aims primarily to create harmonization regarding the norms for the transfer of personal data from the EU towards other parts of the world.


In addition to this, an important milestone has been set by the European Commission with the communication “Tackling online disinformation: a European Approach” aimed to increase transparency by creating agreements between online platforms and advertising industry regain a code of practice.


One of the cornerstones of the discussion regarding this topic relates to the contrast between freedom of speech, which is a human right and, by any mean, cannot be limited, and freedom of information in the context of electoral campaigns.


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