Posts Tagged ‘social media as publishers’

Facebook and Twitter are “publishers”, not merely “couriers”

July 30, 2013

Social media like to claim that they merely provide a “platform” or  are just “communication enablers” or only provide “communication media” and therefore that they are not responsible – and should not be held responsible – for the content they disseminate.

But they protest too much.

It is quite wrong to compare Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn to a telecommunications enterprise or a postal service or a courier service or an e-mail service provider. In all of these a specific identifiable “sender” directs a communique to a specific, identified “receiver”. The carrying of the communique to the specific receiver is the service provided by the communications enterprise and is not in any sense “publishing”. The service provided by the social media is more than just the provision of a soap box in Hyde Park (a platform) or the provision of a Board or a Wall in a town square onto which a newspaper could be appended. Any website could be a platform for comments but the website owner must take ultimate responsibility for the content published on the web-site.

Facebook and Twitter disseminate their users communiques to a general audience without discriminating as to who may receive the communique. Their business models rely on this audience being as large as possible. Their advertising revenues depend upon the dissemination being as wide and as “indiscriminate” as possible. They are not so different to a radio or a TV broadcast where the broadcaster tries to reach as large an audience as possible. The broadcaster is clearly responsible and accountable for the content of the broadcast. A free newspaper being distributed at all Metro stations but where revenues are dependent upon advertising also has a responsible publisher. Any advertising revenue accrues to the publisher.

The clincher for me is that the placement of advertisements based on circulation is decisive proof of the existence of a publisher. All published material does not contain advertising. Not all advertising is proof of the existence of a publisher. A billboard or sandwich-board owner for example, is not a publisher. But the mere existence of advertising based on circulation numbers or “reach” or any similar parameter is conclusive proof – I think – of the existence of a publisher. And it is the person or organisation responsible for the circulation who takes the advertising revenues and in consequence must be the responsible and accountable publisher.

Freedom of speech does not really enter the argument. The publisher may choose to publish whatever he pleases. He may refrain from “censoring” his users if he so wishes. Or he may – at some cost – ensure that the content he publishes meets criteria that he sets himself. But he remains responsible and accountable for what he publishes. Facebook and Twitter cannot abdicate their responsibility because they choose not to exercise the quality control they could.

It seems to me to be self-evident that Facebook and Twitter are not “billboards” or “sandwich-boards” but are full fledged “broadcasters”. And a broadcaster is a publisher. They could take responsibility for the content they disseminate if they wanted to. It just costs. They can be held accountable for what they indubitably do publish – and they should.


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