Beyond redemption?

With the Online Safety Bill currently winding its way through parliament, the big question is, can the platforms police themselves effectively, or is legislation needed? Dickon Ross assesses the social media landscape.

By Dickon Ross

Beyond redemption?
Photograph: Alexander Shatov on Unsplash.

Can social media change for the better? The platform providers avoid the usual obligations on traditional publishers. They deny responsibility or plead impossibility due to scale. Or they simply fail to take the action that they should on illegal or immoral content. This is what parliamentary committees have been hearing in evidence on social media ahead of the Online Safety Bill.

On racism against footballers, Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), said the platforms had proved “incapable of regulating themselves” and always “put profit before people”.

Online child abuse gets worse. MP Chris Elmore, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media said: “Social media companies are fundamentally failing to discharge their duties, and simply ignoring what should be an obvious moral obligation to keep young users safe.”

Scam adverts are rife. “It is vital for online platforms, such as social media companies, to take a legal responsibility to identify, remove, and prevent false and fraudulent activity on their websites,” said James Thomson, chairman of the City of London Police Authority Board which leads nationally on fraud. “Regrettably, this is something they have failed to do effectively to date.”

Terrorists are still there. The tech companies have got better at working with law enforcement, the Met Police’s Dame Cressida Dick told an international counter-terrorism summit, but are still not doing enough to stop radicalisation online.

There have always been malign influences but social media gives them a louder, anonymous voice which is then magnified, sometimes by shadowy foreign state actors. Repeated appeals to behave better seem to make absolutely no difference so now the pressure is growing on the social media providers.

Technology could help but only if the platforms show the same resolve to apply advanced algorithm techniques to these problems as they do elsewhere in their business. New legislation may in the end force them to tackle these most harmful online harms. Other problems with social media may be less harmful but perhaps more intractable because they concern the ethos and tone of social media.

The American satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer once joked that the trouble with folk music is that it is written by ‘the people’. One might say social media suffers the same problem: the people don’t understand the media and don’t want to. They dislike journalists and care little about media and libel law, fairness, balance, or the difference between comment and fact.

Repeated appeals to behave better seem to make absolutely no difference.

Shooting the messenger

#TomorrowsPapersToday is a useful service run by volunteer journalists who tweet the next day’s front and back pages as they come in each night. For this, they are often attacked by people who disagree with a paper’s front page or want to know why another has been left out. Accusations and abuse come from those who seem not to understand that the point of #TomorrowsPapersToday is to tweet whatever front pages they can, not just those they’d personally support.

One of the journalists providing the service felt compelled to issue a statement explaining how it works: “If a front page doesn’t appear, bear in mind this could be happening for a number of reasons. We don’t have access to a lawyer so if we have libel concerns about a front page, we don’t use it. A front page might be embargoed, perhaps till midnight or some other outlandish time, so in that situation, the ‘embargocat’ appears instead and I go to bed.”

He explains that newspapers sometimes don’t want their front pages given away for free on social media, either because they don’t want stories their journalists have worked so hard on instantly lifted by everyone else, or because they are thinking of their business models and don’t want to give it all away for free. Who can blame them?

These are all quite reasonable, sensible, perhaps obvious explanations to those used to working in the media. But not to those that troll and flame the volunteers behind #TomorrowsPapersToday. They just wade in with all guns blazing, not stopping for a moment to check the context, the raison d’être or any other background.

Another problem with social media is the lack of nuance. I hear growing concern about how every issue, no matter how complex, becomes a dichotomy. It’s one extreme or the other, you’re for or against, it’s a culture war. Social media rewards the outraged, the extreme, the hyperbolic and the wildly emotional. At best, it tends to ignore the balanced, the reasoned, the more cautious opinion. And at worst, it produces a torrent of abuse – all because someone dared to suggest that there might be two sides to an argument or we might consider another viewpoint. Then, when they remark on the OTT response they’ve received, they get more of it.

“You have to admire people who sing these songs,” Tom Lehrer said about the folk song of protest. “It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favour of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on.” Today we could seriously, rather than satirically, say the same of social media. Lehrer is now 93. “Things I once thought were funny are scary now,” he says. I know what he means.

Social media rewards the outraged, the extreme, the hyperbolic and the wildly emotional.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.