Social media has come a long way since its inception, evolving from a platform for simple communication to a powerful force shaping modern society. As the content shared on social media has evolved, its potential for harm has also increased. In this article, we will examine the history of social media, the evolution of its content, the measures taken by platforms to protect themselves from liability, and the current legal issues surrounding the industry.
The History of Social Media
To understand the digital form of social media, its important to go back in time and discuss the origins of social media. Social media evolved from traditional modes of written communication. Hand-delivered correspondence, such as letters, was the earliest way of communicating across vast distances. The first postal service started in 550 B.C.E., and the primitive delivery system eventually grew, spread, and streamlined over the following centuries.
In 1792, the telegraph was developed, allowing personal messages to be delivered over great distances much faster than a horse and rider could. Although telegraph communications were brief, they were a revolutionary method of communicating news and information. Indeed, many people believe that the birth of social media coincided with the growth of the telegraph.
The pneumatic post, invented in 1865, provided another means for letters to be delivered rapidly between recipients. The pneumatic post, which is no longer used outside of drive-through banking, uses underground pressurized air tunnels to transport capsules from one location to another.
In the final decade of the 1800s, two significant breakthroughs occurred: the telephone in 1890 and the radio in 1891. Telephone lines and radio signals allowed people to communicate instantly across great distances, something that humanity had never experienced before. Both technologies are still in use today, though contemporary versions are far more advanced than their predecessors.
The development of social media coincided with the rapid evolution of technology in the twentieth century. Following the creation of the first supercomputers in the 1940s, scientists and engineers began to build networks between those computers, which eventually led to the birth of the internet and the World Wide Web.
The first versions of the internet, such as CompuServe, were created in the 1960s. During this time, primitive forms of electronic communication were also created. By the 1970s, networking technology had advanced, and UseNet enabled users to interact via a virtual newsletter and digital bulletin board systems in 1979. Personal computers were becoming more prevalent by the 1980s, and social media was becoming more sophisticated. IRCs, or Internet relay chats, were introduced in 1988 and stayed popular well into the 1990s.
Social media as we know it today started to emerge before the turn of the century. Six Degrees, the first recognized social media site, debuted in 1997. It allowed users to create a profile and connect with other people. The first blogging sites became popular for user-generated material in 1999, sparking a social media phenomenon that continues to this day. At the close of the last millennium, providers such as America Online launched wildly popular instant messaging apps.
The First Digital Social Media Platform and Early Social Networking Sites
Six Degrees founder Andrew Weinreich, known as the “Father of Social Networking,” introduced the first true social media platform in 1997 after applying for the first social networking patent. “A networking database containing a plurality of records for different individuals in which individuals are connected to one another in the database by defined relationships,” he wrote.
When the first social media site allowed users to create online communities and post content, the concept rapidly gained traction. Early social media sites, such as Friendster, drew millions of users worldwide, connecting people through mutual friends, family members, and acquaintances. Of course, social media has always been about more than just making pals. Other sites, such as Hot or Not, invited users to upload photos and rate each other’s physical attractiveness.
LinkedIn launched in 2002, but Myspace arrived a year later, and social media as we know it began to take form. Myspace, a Friendster competitor, gained early popularity among young people, but unlike most of its early competitors, it quickly attracted a wider demographic. Myspace allowed users to create customizable personal profiles that included pictures, videos, and even music.
Myspace had 25 million users at its height and was the most visited website in the United States. Sadly, Myspace was surpassed by Facebook in 2008. It has since tried to rebrand itself as a music-focused social network, but has mostly been consigned to history. Of course, Myspace was not the only early social media tool to dominate the landscape. Reddit, Tumblr, and Flickr carved out their own niches in the early 2000s and continue to draw users today.
The Evolution of Content and Its Dangers
In the early days of social media, content primarily consisted of text-based messages and simple profile updates. As technology progressed, sharing photos, videos, and links to external content became the norm. With increased interactivity, the potential for harmful content to be shared also increased.
Hate speech, cyberbullying, misinformation, and extremist content have become significant concerns for social media platforms and society as a whole. The ease and speed with which information can be disseminated on these platforms can lead to real-world consequences, such as election interference, harassment, and even acts of violence.
As the field of online safety develops, it is beginning to concentrate on some of the more common risks to both youth and adults: privacy, security, and image management.
While preserving one’s privacy has always been difficult (think of small-town gossip dating back centuries), the Internet and mobile technology have opened up new avenues for privacy issues on a grand scale. For starters, there is what we publish. It’s now very simple to post information that could embarrass yourself or others or disclose secrets that you shouldn’t share. There’s also the matter of what businesses know about us. Anyone who uses a search engine, email service, or social network leaves a trail for businesses to track.
Furthermore, due to third-party tracking cookies, some of that information is ending up in the hands of companies we may not even be aware of. It is a serious problem that requires serious consideration by consumers, regulators, and businesses. And everyone, including children and teenagers, needs to learn how to limit what others can discover about them. Furthermore, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the United States and other governments have the ability to monitor us, which, given the immense power of government over our lives, can be a serious issue.
Another issue with Internet safety that has grown worse over time is security. Every day seems to bring another big security breach revealing the vulnerability of our usernames and passwords, credit card information, or email. There are many professionals in government and the private sector working to improve security, but there are also many criminals out there looking for methods to obtain access to our personal information. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and the “good guys” are currently far behind. While there is no way to be completely secure against hackers, there are steps families can take to better their security and use secure and unique passwords.
Protecting Platforms from Liability
To shield themselves from legal liability, social media platforms have relied on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in the United States. This legislation, enacted in 1996, protects online intermediaries from liability for content created by third-party users. However, the act does not grant complete immunity, and platforms are required to take action against certain types of content, such as copyrighted material and child pornography.
As the nature of content shared on social media has evolved, platforms have also implemented their own community guidelines and content moderation policies. These measures are intended to strike a balance between protecting freedom of expression and preventing the spread of harmful content.
Examples of Current Legal Issues Regarding Social Media
Several high-profile cases have arisen in recent years, testing the limits of social media platforms’ responsibility and liability for user-generated content.
- Trump and Twitter: In 2020, Twitter flagged and eventually suspended former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account for repeated violations of its policies on misinformation and incitement of violence. This case sparked intense debate about the role of social media platforms in moderating political speech and the limits of their power in curbing the expression of influential figures.
- Facebook and the Rohingya Crisis: In 2018, the United Nations found that Facebook had played a role in spreading hate speech that fueled the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Facebook was criticized for not taking timely action against the spread of extremist content and misinformation, which led to real-world violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
- Google v. Equustek: In this 2017 Canadian case, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered Google to globally remove search results that led to websites selling counterfeit products. This ruling raised questions about the jurisdictional reach of national courts in regulating online content and the responsibility of search engines in curbing access to illegal content.
The history of social media has been marked by rapid growth and continuous evolution. As platforms grapple with the challenges of moderating content, the balance between free expression and preventing harm remains a contentious issue. Legal battles and high-profile cases continue to shape the boundaries of platform liability and responsibility, with potential implications for the future of social media and online discourse.
As lawmakers and platforms work together to address these challenges, it is crucial to ensure that the benefits of social media are preserved while mitigating the potential dangers. This may involve refining existing legislation, enhancing content moderation practices, and fostering greater transparency and cooperation between platforms, governments, and users. Ultimately, striking the right balance is essential for maintaining a healthy online environment that fosters connection, creativity, and free expression while protecting individuals and society from harm.