From a Network to a Dilemma: The Legitimacy of Social Media

58 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2022

See all articles by Gilad Abiri

Gilad Abiri

Peking University School of Transnational Law; Yale Law School

Sebastian Guidi

Yale University, Law School

Date Written: August 15, 2022

Abstract

Social media platforms are facing a legitimation crisis. Without a significant change in their relationship with the public, they have reason to fear massive abandonment by users and crippling government regulation. Aware of this threat, platforms have tried to mimic legitimation strategies deployed by older, venerable institutions such as successful corporations, major media outlets, government bureaucracies, and even supreme courts. This is not surprising: New organizations routinely legitimate themselves by mimicking older ones. However, we show that in the case of social media platforms, these strategies are deeply misguided, for two different reasons.

The first set of strategies mimics legal institutions such as bureaucracies and constitutional courts. We show that these attempts fundamentally misunderstand the reason why law is legitimated in modern societies. Platforms seem to think that merely adopting legal symbolism and forms can provide legitimation on its own. However, law in modern societies is legitimated not only through procedural and formal justice, but also because it exists in the context of a state and is perceived as authored by the political community. By stressing the how of law, platforms miss the fundamental question: Why should we allow Mark Zuckerberg, Bytedance, or the Twitter board to possess such incredible power over the digital public sphere?

The second set of strategies focus on mimic non-legal institutions such as large tech firms and mass media outlets. These attempts fail in a different way. By echoing the arguments of corporations and civil society organizations, platforms are indeed trying to provide an answer to why they should exert power over the public sphere. However, these answers are highly implausible: social media platforms are just too public to be fully private, and too concerned with profit to be believed to act in the public interest.

Thus, social media platforms are currently unable to resolve their legitimation crisis. However, it is unlikely they are going to just disappear: an alternative to a public sphere without legitimate platforms is likely not a future without platforms, but a future with delegitimated, tyrannical ones. We believe that the failures described in this Essay reveal that successfully providing a reason as to why platform power is legitimate would likely require a significant change in the way social media platforms operate, conduct their business, and ultimately conceive of themselves.

Keywords: free speech, legitimacy, social media, social networks, content moderation

Suggested Citation

Abiri, Gilad and Guidi, Sebastian, From a Network to a Dilemma: The Legitimacy of Social Media (August 15, 2022). Stanford Technology Law Review, Forthcoming, Peking University School of Transnational Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4230635 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4230635

Gilad Abiri

Peking University School of Transnational Law ( email )

Peking Univ. Shenzhen Campus
University Town, Xili, Nanshan District
Shenzhen, 518055
China

Yale Law School ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06510
United States

Sebastian Guidi (Contact Author)

Yale University, Law School ( email )

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