Social Media Platforms as Public Trustees: An Approach to the Disinformation Problem

48 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2020

Date Written: December 14, 2020


This paper explores relevant precedent for disinformation-related regulation in the U.S. media sector; and then considers whether the underlying rationale that justified such regulation is relevant to the social media context. Specifically, this paper considers whether the public trustee governance model that applies to broadcasting in the U.S. might be applicable in the social media context; and whether the type of disinformation-related regulations that have accompanied this public trustee model might therefore be feasible within the social media context as well.

The first section of this paper provides an overview of the current legal and policymaking environment, briefly considering the status of disinformation from a First Amendment standpoint, and current policy initiatives that may directly or indirectly impact the degree of disinformation produced, disseminated, and consumed on social media platforms. The second section reviews some little-known media regulations that directly address disinformation – the Federal Communications Commission’s broadcast hoax and news distortion rules. The third section reviews the regulatory rationales upon which these rules are premised. The fourth section considers whether one of these rationales – the idea of broadcasters as trustees of a public resource – should apply to social media platforms, and the implications of thinking about social media platforms as public trustees, for the viability of some form of disinformation-related government intervention. The fifth section offers some thoughts on the appropriate scope and limitations for this public trustee model. The concluding section considers possible next steps for formalizing this public trustee model and its associated public interest obligations.

Keywords: Social Media, Media Regulation, Public Trustee, Disinformation, Internet, Media Policy, First Amendment

JEL Classification: L5, L86, Z18

Suggested Citation

Napoli, Philip M. and Graf, Fabienne, Social Media Platforms as Public Trustees: An Approach to the Disinformation Problem (December 14, 2020). TPRC48: The 48th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy, Available at SSRN: or

Philip M. Napoli (Contact Author)

Duke University ( email )

Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

Fabienne Graf

University of Lucerne ( email )

Hofstrasse 9
P.O. Box 7464
Luzern 7, CH - 6000

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics