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What's on the social media horizon in the year ahead

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Social media companies are in for a tense year in 2022 if this past year is any guide. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube started this year by banning the sitting president of the United States after the January 6 riots.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

They said that then-President Trump used their platforms to incite violence, which felt like a line in the sand. But criticism of social media companies only grew louder.

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STEVE SCALISE: This article was censored by Twitter when it was originally sent out.

KELLY: Republican Congressman Steve Scalise accusing Twitter of suppressing journalism favorable to conservatives in one of many congressional hearings about Big Tech this year. A few months later...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On COVID misinformation, what's your message to platforms like Facebook?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They're killing people.

SHAPIRO: President Joe Biden expressed his frustration that tech companies have not acted fast enough to curb virus and vaccine misinformation. Accusations kept coming in from both sides of the aisle, among other places.

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FRANCES HAUGEN: My name is Frances Haugen. I used to work at Facebook.

KELLY: She handed over thousands of pages of internal documents to regulators, also to members of Congress and The Wall Street Journal, showing that Facebook knows about its potential harms to users, including how Instagram can be toxic for teenagers.

SHAPIRO: After this year, it seems like just about everyone in Congress wants something to be done. But federal lawmakers still haven't actually done it. So what are the prospects for regulating social media? Our co-host Audie Cornish asked NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond to break it down.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: So this was a year when Congress held a lot of hearings. We were hearing lawmakers talk about how it was sort of finally time to regulate tech companies. But is there actually consensus in Washington about what that means?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Well, there's consensus that these companies are too powerful, but I'm not sure how much consensus there is beyond that. For all of the concerns that they have raised about social media, about the power of tech, there's still a lot of, you know, really partisan divide over what to do about those concerns. So Democrats say that tech companies should be taking down more harmful content, more misinformation, more hate speech, you know, all of these issues that we see them grappling with. Republicans, on the other hand, have long argued that they are censored, that conservative views are suppressed and that, you know, tech companies are taking down too much. So not a lot of middle ground there.

But what we have seen this year is a lot of bills introduced dealing with everything from privacy to requiring more transparency about how companies operate, attempting to wade into what content should be allowed online - and bills tackling competition, you know, these issues of power. That includes beefing up the ability of the two Big Tech regulators, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, to take on these companies.

CORNISH: Let's get into that a little bit more 'cause I understand those agencies have actually even brought lawsuits against tech companies. What should we be looking out for in 2022?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, of course, these legal battles are a long process. But you know, let's take the FTC. It's taken this big swing at Facebook with a lawsuit accusing it of buying or burying competitors. It wants the court to force Facebook to sell WhatsApp and Instagram, you know, these apps Facebook paid a lot of money for years ago. Now, the FTC these days is led by Lina Khan, who's a young, dynamic critic of corporate power. She has these really bold ideas about breaking up companies that are too powerful. It's this vision that her detractors like to call hipster antitrust. And for the FTC under Khan's leadership, this Facebook lawsuit is a major test, so we'll be watching to see, you know, whether the courts let it go ahead because Facebook is trying to get the lawsuit thrown out. So that's what's to watch there.

CORNISH: And, you know, I want to ask about Europe because regulators there have been much more active when it comes to confronting powerful tech companies. Are we in the U.S. going to feel the effects of that next year?

BOND: I think we certainly could. You know, these companies operate globally. And if they are forced to make big changes in Europe, you know, it can often be simpler for them to apply those changes everywhere. And frankly, with all of the sort of slow rolling that's happened in the U.S., European regulators have moved ahead. They have passed big privacy laws. They also take a much more muscular attitude about the government's role in protecting its citizens.

So right now, the EU is trying to create strict new rules that would prevent big companies from giving preference to their own products and services. So if you go on Amazon, you know, maybe you see Amazon pushing items it sells over the third-party sellers. You know, that would be banned or regulated. And so we may see something similar play out when it comes to kids online, as well. The U.K. has just passed new rules about how apps for kids can be designed, and that will affect companies like Instagram and Snapchat and TikTok.

CORNISH: You know, it's interesting. Compared to other years where maybe surveillance was the big issue, child safety seemed to be the concern this year. Let's look ahead on that.

BOND: That's right. I mean, this is an area of rare bipartisan unity, maybe consensus that that's something that lawmakers do want to take on. I think we may finally see efforts to update the national child data privacy law succeed. That currently protects kids under age 13. The idea would be to expand it to older teens. There are also lawmakers and child safety advocates who want the U.S. to adopt its own version of these new U.K. rules about designing apps for kids. The question is, how much will that change what companies are doing? You know, kids are an important market for Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok. It's their next generation of users. Right? They're essential to their growth.

Now, under a lot of pressure, this year, Instagram paused work on a version of the app it was building for kids under age 13. But that was only a pause. And the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, made clear to Congress this month that the company is not backing away from building this app. You know, what he says is, you know, kids under 13 are already on Instagram, even though they're not supposed to be. And so it would be better for everybody to create a specific version just for them with parental supervision and controls.

CORNISH: And of course, 2022 is an election year. How prepared are Facebook, Twitter and other companies?

BOND: And I think these companies have learned a lot. But of course, these challenges keep evolving, and they're not going away. So, you know, of course, all of these platforms did ban Donald Trump after January 6. But, you know, that was really an outlier. They still are not especially clear on their policies for anything that sort of smacks of politics where you could argue that these people - these are people expressing political opinions, even when that veers into misinformation, including misinformation about COVID, about climate change. So I think we can expect that political partisans and even elected officials will keep spreading misinformation. And that is going to be a challenge for these companies to deal with, you know.

And there are obviously hurdles to Congress passing laws about speech online. And so the question that we still don't have a good answer for is, what role do we think that unelected corporate executives, like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, should play in deciding what people can say on the internet? Zuckerberg and other leaders at these tech companies have made very clear they are uncomfortable with that role. But who ultimately do we want to make those calls?

CORNISH: That's NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Thanks so much.

BOND: Thanks, Audie.

KELLY: And we'll note that Amazon, Apple and Google are among NPR's financial supporters. And Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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