Social media fills the same space as pamphlets - that makes them publishers: Interview with Tom Tugendhat

Social media fills the same space as pamphlets - that makes them publishers: Interview with Tom Tugendhat

Catherine Neilan

07:33 5th February 2021

The question of whether social media platforms are actually publishers has been raging for years, as legislators try to work out what to do with them and content creators complain they are being ripped off.

Giants like Facebook and Twitter have long argued they are neutral vessels that cannot be responsible for everything that is published through them.

However, their increasing reliance on algorithms to increase the views of some posts at the expense of others saw them take a step closer to the publisher camp.

Twitter arguably went even further down that road by flagging and in some cases hiding disputed content. And in finally ejecting Donald Trump entirely, it seems very clear that an editorial decision has been taken - irrespective of whether it is right or wrong - that marks them out as more than just a humble platform.

Why does it matter if they are publishers or platforms? Simply, it changes everything. If they are publishers they have responsibilities that they have until now been able to shirk. As a platform they can't be sued, for example, if any libellous content appears on their website. But as a publisher, they have a duty to stop disinformation, incitement and other generally polarising behaviour.

As Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament, notes we are in a "similar horse-to-cart" moment to that experienced with the rise of the printing press in the 15th century, which led to an explosion in decentralised writings.

"When pamphlets started to be printed, they were filled with all sorts of extraordinary claims, scurrilous lies and vile accusations," he tells Making Common Ground. "Today, social media fills the same place as pamphlets. The person who prints the pamphlet has a responsibility to it and has to put their name at the bottom of it."

But while Twitter has made some moves towards recognising its responsibilities, Tugendhat notes the discrepancy between the speed of taking down some of Trump's tweets while leaving deliberately provocative claims made by Chinese authorities.

Listen to the full interview below:

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Tags: Social Media Podcast Polarisation Disinformation Donald Trump Brexit