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Tech vs. Democracy

In an age when most people get their news from social media, mafia states have had little trouble censoring social-media content that their leaders deem harmful to their interests. But for liberal democracies, regulating social media is not so straightforward, because governments must strike a balance between competing principles.

BRUSSELS – Instagram, a photo-sharing platform owned by Facebook, recently caved in to a demand by the Russian government that it remove posts by opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging misconduct on the part of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko. In a YouTube video that has garnered almost six million views (and which is still available), Navalny shows Prikhodko hobnobbing with the oligarch Oleg Deripaska on a yacht in Norway, where he alleges bribery took place.

After Navalny’s posts appeared, Deripaska went to the Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor to request that Facebook remove the content, which it immediately did. This episode has now attracted much attention, as well as criticism for Facebook. And yet there have been thousands of other cases just like it.

In an age when most people get their news from social media, mafia states have had little trouble censoring social-media content that their leaders deem harmful to their interests. But for liberal democracies, regulating social media is not so straightforward, because it requires governments to strike a balance between competing principles. After all, social-media platforms not only play a crucial role as conduits for the free flow of information; they have also faced strong criticism for failing to police illegal or abusive content, particularly hate speech and extremist propaganda.

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