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, but for different reasons.
The first set of legitimation strategies mimics legal institutions such as bureaucracies and constitutional courts. 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 legitimation strategies focuses on mimicking powerful non-legal organizations 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 do attempt to provide an answer to why they should exert power over the public sphere. However, these answers are fundamentally flawed: Social media platforms are 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 that they are going to disappear: An alternative to a public sphere without legitimate platforms is not a future without platforms but a future with delegitimated, tyrannical ones. We believe that the failures described in this Article reveal that successfully providing a reason as to why platform power is legitimate will require a significant change in the way social media platforms operate, conduct their
business, and ultimately conceive of themselves.