(Re)embracing social responsibility theory as a basis for media speech: shifting the normative paradigm for a modern media
Keywords:social media, online speech, free speech theory, libertarianism, social responsibility theory, media freedom
Dave Egger’s fictional book The Circle tells the story of an all-powerful new media company of the same name that seeks to totally monopolise its market and remake the world in its image. To achieve this The Circle advocates the unregulated sharing of all information, at all times, regardless of its source and irrespective of the consequences for individuals, society and the state. Although the dystopian view of reality presented by the book is perhaps slightly extreme, it does not take any great leap of faith to see how we could all end up as ‘Circlers’, particularly because the underlying normative rationale that drives The Circle is what currently underpins online speech in reality. Libertarianism and the inherently libertarian arguments from truth and the marketplace of ideas have historically underpinned the notion of the Fourth Estate and have a ‘hold’ on First Amendment jurisprudence. In recent years, libertarianism has emerged as the de facto normative paradigm for internet and social media speech worldwide. Although the theory’s dominant position fits with the perceived ethos of social media platforms such as Facebook, its philosophical foundations are based on nineteenth and early twentieth-century means of communication. Consequently, as illustrated by issues such as filter bubbles and Facebook’s reaction to fake news (bringing in a third-party fact-checking company) which conflicts with the platform’s libertarian ideology, as well as the European Court of Human Rights consistently placing the argument from democracy at the heart of its Article 10 ECHR jurisprudence, rather than the argument from truth and marketplace of ideas, this normative framework is idealistic as opposed to being realistic. Therefore, it is not suitable for twenty-first-century free speech and the modern media, of which social media is no longer an outlier, but a central component. Thus, this paper advances the argument that a normative and philosophical framework for media speech, based on social responsibility theory and the argument from democratic self-governance, is more suitable for the modern media than libertarianism. Further, it justifies a coercive regulatory regime that also preserves media freedom.