Abstract: Traditional conceptions of democratic publics are changing due to the rise of social media as a global communication tool. While social media brings people together globally and creates new spaces for creativity and resistance, it is also a space of harassment, discrimination, and violence. As recent debates about hate speech and the distribution of “fake news” have shown, the political responsibilities and consequences of regulating online content remain unclear. More recently, the EU is increasingly paying attention to platform providers. How is the EU legitimizing its new approach to social media platform regulation and how will this legislation shape transnational publics? This article contributes to ongoing debates on platform regulation by governments and other political authorities (especially the EU as a transnational legislator) and discussions about the shape of online publics. By applying a discourse analytical perspective, key legitimation narratives can be explored. I argue that the EU claims political authority over corporate interests by introducing new legislation to regulate social media platforms with the Digital Services Act. On the one hand, the EU imagines an idealized democratic online public without harmful and illegal content. On the other hand, the new legislation serves the EU’s agenda on digital sovereignty, taking back control from big and US-based enterprises. There is a strong consensus about four legitimation narratives: (a) “What is illegal offline has to be illegal online”; (b) the EU is “taking back control”; (c) the EU is “protecting small businesses, consumers, and our citizens against big tech”; (d) the EU is developing “a golden standard and rulebook beyond the EU.” Held together by the idea of democratic procedures, authority, and sovereignty, these narratives are demanding more action from social media providers to act on harmful and illegal content.
Keywords: content moderation; Digital Services Act; EU regulation; freedom of expression; social media platforms