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Concerns about censorship key driver of US opinions on social media regulation, study says

“Content moderation and platform regulation are having a moment,” or so say scholars affiliated with the Digital Media Research Program at the University of Texas at Austin in a paper authored earlier in 2020 and published last week, Antecedents of support for social media content moderation and platform regulation: the role of presumed effects on self and others. Given the events of the past few weeks, it is perhaps one of the few instances where the long lead times in academic publishing makes a paper even more relevant to the news of the day than it was on the date the work was submitted.

Based on results of a survey of a thousand US internet users, this study considers what factors impact support for content moderation by social media platforms and how they relate to a person’s perception of the effects of social media content on people. It also explores what factors impact support for increased government regulation of the platforms and how they relate to perceptions of the impact of social media on society. The study plumbs the impact of “the third person effect,” a concept in communications research that refers to the effect that arises when an individual exposed to a communication perceives that communication as being more impactful to others than to him or herself.

Hypothesizing that survey participants “will perceive the negative effects of social media content to be stronger for others than for themselves,” and that the opposite is also true- that survey participants “will perceive stronger beneficial effects of social media platforms on themselves than on society,” the researchers set out to determine the strongest predictors of support for content moderation and government regulation of social media platforms. Survey questions included ranking statements such as ‘I support social media platforms prohibiting the publishing of certain kinds of content,’ ‘Platforms should have review systems for all social media content before it is allowed to be published,’ ‘Platforms should have review systems for all social media content after it is published’, ‘How much do you think you are influenced by content on social media platforms?,’ and ‘How much do you think social media content leads you to be angry?’

Confirming both hypotheses, the researchers conclude there is indeed a difference in perceived impact of social media on one’s self versus others, and look at how this third person effect relates to support for content moderation and regulation. A key driver is concerns about censorship. “When users think that platforms are intentionally censoring viewpoints, they are more supportive of government regulation,” the study concludes. But the prospect of government regulation is clouded by the perception that the benefits of social media platforms are stronger for the individual respondent than to society. In other words, while people may feel they get quite a lot out of social media, they aren’t so sure that society benefits on the whole.

The authors hope the study will inform further attitudinal research “on what people are thinking about platforms, content moderation, and regulation in the spirit of evidence-based policymaking,” one of the authors, Martin Johannes Riedl, said in a tweet.

Martin J. Riedl , Kelsey N. Whipple & Ryan Wallace (2021): Antecedents of support for social media content moderation and platform regulation: the role of presumed effects on self and others, Information, Communication & Society, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2021.1874040

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