Facebook regulation and wider laws concerning social media sites is looking increasingly likely. These platforms are finally under scrutiny from regulators and government, for both their handling of data, their role as news distributors and the platforms’ effect on people’s health.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee published a report on disinformation and fake news with Facebook at its focus earlier this year. It found that Facebook “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws”. It also suggested a Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies, which would be overseen by an independent regulator. That regulator would have powers to launch legal action.

The report called on the UK Government to reform communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in elections. Finally, it asked for social media companies to recognise their obligations and take down sources of harmful content and “proven sources of disinformation”.

Mark Zuckerberg refused to appear before the committee, however there are signs that Facebook is making an effort to deal with fake news. It appointed UK fact-checking organisation Full Fact in January and has several other partners involved with fact-checking in other countries.

“Other social media will follow suit”

It might seem like Facebook has been singled out, and unfairly so, but it’s a question of impact. Facebook has arguably the greatest impact on society, and singling it out for punishment is likely to have the greatest effect on the social media industry.

Damian Collins MP, chair of the DCMS Committee says, “Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers.”

Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech.com adds, “Facebook is by far the largest social media platform in the world. So if you regulate Facebook, other social media will follow suit.”

“I don’t think Facebook is being unfairly targeted,” he continues, “And there are other reasons why Facebook deserves more scrutiny. Facebook pesters users to enter profile information about their relationship status, employers, hometown, education, and much more.

“That stuff is a goldmine for people who want political demographic data to use in targeted advertisements and posts containing fake news. Instagram and Twitter, for example, have much simpler profile pages with one-line bios and fewer personal details.

“The way Facebook deals with developers also makes it a target for regulation. Third-party apps and websites allow users to log in with their Facebook accounts in return for personal details stored in those accounts. Other social networks do this, too, but Facebook and Google accounts are by far the most popular ones to log in with.”

Merely a ‘platform’?

The UK report warns that “social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’”. It says they cannot “maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites”.

Focusing on Facebook, a survey by One Poll for cybersecurity firm Eskenzi PR, found 83% of UK consumers think Facebook should be regulated. Only 4% of Brits disagree.

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The research also showed that 73% believe the social media platform is damaging peoples’ mental health. 70% think fake news is damaging democracy. People are also concerned Facebook is not acting responsibly with their data. There are further worries over cyberbullying and fears that cybercriminals are using the site.

“We have recently seen a real arrogance coming from Facebook and our survey shows the general public is waking up to this,” said Yvonne Eskenzi, director of Eskenzi PR.

“More importantly, a massive majority of people not only think the platform is harming people’s mental health. It’s also impacting our democracy, privacy and damaging security.”

Dangerous territory for Facebook

Tim Erlin, vice president at Tripwire said the survey shows regulation attempts over Facebook will be met positively.

“Regulation is often a blunt instrument applied to problems with nuance. In this case, any regulation developed would have to apply more broadly than just Facebook. But there’s room for unintended consequences to other industries and organisations,” he said.

Corin Imai, senior security advisor at DomainTools added: “Facebook is entering dangerous territory in 2019. The social media giant once thought of as too big to fail appears fallible for the first time.”

The conclusion for Facebook and the other social media demagogues must be to react quickly now. And yet, even if they do their best to clean up, serious regulation is looking inevitable.