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NULab Core Faculty John Wihbey Discusses Study on Free Speech on Social Media

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From News@Northeastern

By Ian Thomsen

Facebook, Google, Instagram, and other social media giants are based in the United States, where they have faced relatively little government oversight. But their reach extends around the world, influencing a wide spectrum of audiences in a variety of ways.

A Northeastern survey of four diverse democracies found that people in other countries differ from Americans when it comes to opinions as to how social media companies should be regulated, with respondents in the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Mexico favoring stricter content moderation than people in the U.S.—especially in cases that cause harm or distress.

Governments around the world have debated regulations to curb the misinformation and hate speech that have proliferated  on social media. The study, led by Northeastern journalism faculty members John Wihbey and Myojung Chung, compared public opinion across the four nations on issues of online censorship, free speech, and social-media regulation.

John Wihbey (left), associate professor of journalism and media innovation; and Myojung Chung, assistant professor of journalism and media advocacy.

The study affirms the importance of developing a coherent global policy—one that tailors content to meet the demands and expectations of a variety of countries and cultures.

“These global tech companies have rolled out products and services in ways that have outstripped their ability to resource them properly,” says Wihbey, an associate professor who heads Northeastern’s graduate programs in journalism and media innovation.

Wihbey notes that many of the social platforms—including Meta (the new parent company of Facebook), Apple, Google, Reddit, and Twitter—have endorsed the Santa Clara Principles, a 2018 creation by human-rights organizations, advocates, and academic experts that urged the online companies to “take into consideration the diversity of cultures and contexts in which their platforms and services are available and used.”

Facebook originally was designed for an American audience. Though Facebook has improved its efforts in some countries, says Wihbey, in many others the company has yet to develop a proficiency for local culture or language—thereby hindering moderators’ ability to identify harmful content based on local standards.

“There are still whole cultures where they don’t have language expertise,” Wihbey says of Facebook. “Their classifiers and algorithms aren’t trained to recognize things.”

Each democratic country applies its values in nuanced ways, the study found. In South Korea, 84% of respondents said the government should do more to prohibit misinformation. Fewer  than 62% of people in the U.S. agreed.

“South Korea is a collectivistic country,” says Chung, an assistant professor of journalism and media advocacy. She notes that people in her homeland of South Korea tend to be highly supportive of free speech while also believing in the moderation of social media when the content is doing harm.

“When you’re looking into these differences, you have to consider not only the political system but also the culture,” Chung says.

All four democracies are suffering from political divisions that have been fed by social-media misinformation. Though the U.S. lags far behind the European Union in terms of regulating Facebook and other tech behemoths, the need for social-media governance has emerged as a rare issue of agreement for both Republicans and Democrats.

But Americans continue to be international outliers when it comes to reining in social media. A minority of people in the U.S. (42%) agreed that governments should temporarily block entire social apps or websites that persistently fail to remove misinformation —compared to majorities in Mexico (71%), South Korea (61%), and the U.K. (59%). 

“To me, the most surprising finding was the difference between the U.S. and the other three countries,” Chung says. “I expected the difference to be subtle rather than this clear.”

The study, a joint paper between the College of Arts, Media and Design and the Ethics Institute, was also co-authored by Northeastern graduate students Garrett Morrow, Yushu Tian, Lauren Vitacco, Daniela Rincon Reyes, and Melissa Clavijo.

The Northeastern group plans to explore the data to help explain why approaches to social media differ around the world.

“Even in countries with relatively similar political structures, there are different needs and cultural values,” Wihbey says. “The companies need to think carefully about resourcing this properly if they’re going to do global business.”

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