To Reform Social Media, Reform Informational Capitalism

Social Media, Freedom of Speech and the Future of Our Democracy; Lee Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone, eds., Forthcoming

36 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2021 Last revised: 13 Jan 2022

Date Written: September 6, 2021


Calls for altering First Amendment protections to deal with problems caused by social media are often misdirected. The problem is not First Amendment doctrines that protect harmful or false speech. The problem is the health of the digital public sphere: in particular, whether the digital public sphere, as currently constituted, adequately protects the values of political democracy, cultural democracy, and the growth and spread of knowledge. Instead of tinkering with First Amendment doctrines at the margins, we should focus on the industrial organization of digital media and the current business models of social media companies.

Only a handful of social media companies currently dominate online discourse. In addition, the business models of social media companies give them incentives to act irresponsibly and amplify false and harmful content. The goals of social media regulation should therefore be twofold. The first goal should be to ensure a more diverse ecology of social media so that no single company’s construction or governance of the digital public sphere dominates. The second goal should be to give social media companies — or at least the largest and most powerful ones — incentives to become trusted and trustworthy organizations for facilitating, organizing, and curating public discourse. Competition law, consumer protection, and privacy reforms are needed to create a more diverse and pluralistic industry and to discourage business practices that undermine the digital public sphere.

Given these goals, the focus should not be on First Amendment doctrines of content regulation, but on digital business models. To the extent that First Amendment doctrine requires any changes, one should aim at relatively recent decisions concerning commercial speech, data privacy, and telecommunications law that might make it harder for Congress to regulate digital businesses.

Keywords: Social Media, First Amendment, Content Regulation, False Speech, Fake News, Defamation, Antitrust, Competition Law, Privacy Law, Section 230

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M., To Reform Social Media, Reform Informational Capitalism (September 6, 2021). Social Media, Freedom of Speech and the Future of Our Democracy; Lee Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone, eds., Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

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