Do federal agencies need to collect more data from social media platforms?

There is appetite in both parties to change the "Wild West" atmosphere of social media platforms, but lawmakers must also navigate privacy issues.

social media monitoring
 

Federal agencies must undergo a "digital update" to keep pace with the rising tide of deceptions, scams and disinformation online, experts told Congress during a Jan. 8 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.

Heading into an election year, lawmakers have focused much of their disinformation debate around foreign-directed information operations and allegations of political bias on the part of social media companies. Lawmakers who want to tame the Wild West of social media must also navigate a treacherous and uncertain policy landscape for a set of apps that are less than 20 years old.

Such a change should not come through the creation of a new federal body dedicated to regulating social media or the internet, said Tristan Harris, executive director for the Center for Humane Technology. Rather, agencies should have their missions and resources revamped to better tackle abusive behavior online when it crosses into their jurisdiction.

"You can't just bring some new agency around and regulate all of that virtual world," he said. He suggested expanding the regulatory purview of existing agencies with "a digital update that expands their jurisdiction to just ask, 'Well how do we protect the tech platforms in the same areas of jurisdiction?'"

One idea that received interest from several committee members, including panel chairman Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), was empowering federal agencies to collect more data from social media companies around their user base and activities to identify problematic trends in society -- tapping usage data from Facebook and Twitter to gain insights on social media addiction, for instance.

Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center for Media and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government said the Federal Trade Commission could do more to regulate online political fundraising scams, but only if it has the necessary internal data from the platforms.

"Does the FTC have enough insight into platforms to monitor that, to understand that?" she asked.

There are also privacy concerns in ordering social media companies to share user data with the government, even if lawmakers hope to use it to address social and health problems.

Monika Bickert, vice president of global policy management at Facebook, said the company has recently started releasing biannual transparency reports that include high-level figures for the number of posts found and removed for violating the company's terms of service. The reports cover activities like nudity, child exploitation, terrorist propaganda, fake accounts and hate speech, and they detail how many pieces of content were identified, taken down, appealed and restored. Bickert said the company also keeps track of "how much did we find before anybody reported it to us."

However, when several members asked if Facebook would be willing to share more granular data with regulators, Bickert demurred, telling them the company would follow up with an answer at a later time.

NEXT STORY: FCW Insider: Jan 8

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