What a load of rubbish

The ongoing debate about online harms brought to mind a perceptive question posed by a twelve-year-old some time ago, writes Dickon Ross.

By Dickon Ross

What a load of rubbish
“Unfortunately, it turns out people are happy to share lies or at least unchecked truth.”

“If the internet is so clever, why has it got so much rubbish in it?” That question came from a twelve-year-old to our Q&A inbox for the teenagers’ magazine Flipside when I was editor long before we’d heard about most of today’s social media let alone fake news or the mainstream media. I think it’s the best question we ever had by a long way. It anticipated the story of the hopes of the internet’s early advocates and how those dreams were later cut down by the growing daily reality of misinformation, trolling, cyber bullying and everything else we now know as ‘online harms’.

Microelectronics, computing, networks and the internet grew out of Silicon Valley culture and that had evolved from the hippy ideals of 1960s flower power in California. It’s no coincidence the Valley is where it is. So the dream for the internet – and these were still alive among British media techies in the 1990s – was that the internet would be beyond censorship, the truth would float to the top because the public wouldn’t believe, rate or share anything untrue – why would they? It would be a liberator, giving a voice to the oppressed and the world would generally be a happier, more tolerant and honest place. Back then, it actually seemed possible, if unlikely.

Yet, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Unfortunately, it turns out people are happy to share lies or at least unchecked truth. That shouldn’t be a surprise – people have always loved a good gossip. Their capacity for cruelty to each other shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either. Experiments have shown that, with the promise of anonymity, people can be shockingly cruel to each and that’s turned out to be true of cyberspace as well – saying things to each other online they wouldn’t dare say to their face. Journalists remark on how abusive people can suddenly become more reasonable when they realise there’s a real person behind a comments box, and moderators talk of the power of the ‘adult in the room’.

The traditional, in those days print, media got lots of things wrong about the upstart that was the world wide web. Many underestimated it. Others overestimated the importance of a URL (remember the dot com bust), or the speed of the adoption – print’s not gone away and readers of magazines at least still want it. The shift to digital consumption in newspapers and more so magazines has actually been slower than expected – and slower than for industries like music.

The internet’s great strength has turned out to be its great weakness too.

Getting to the truth

But the one problem the traditional cynical journalists got spot on, it turns out now, was the potential for abuse. How do you know what you’re reading ‘online’ is true? Who wrote it? Why? Who edited it? The internet’s great strength has turned out to be its great weakness too.

It was also that journalists had got used to a certain way of doing things, with checks and balances. Sure, it wasn’t hard to find falsehoods in the traditional media, and there were plenty of high prolife examples in daily newspapers, but we could usually see where they were coming from and why – and underneath the more obvious culprits, there was a deep sea of honest, daily journalism topped with a few investigative triumphs. ‘Comment is free, facts are sacred’ was the mantra and you were seriously worried if you got one wrong. We all knew people who’d been sacked or at least yelled at by news editors in the days when news desks were run so ferociously. There was some accountability and responsibility. Even our now prime minster was dismissed for such transgressions.

It’s all much more shadowy online, especially in the free for all social media. At best, it’s online equivalents of road rage man, at worst, it’s meddling foreign governments or scary populist movements bubbling up.

The defence of the technology platforms is a familiar one to journalists trained in media law – innocent dissemination. The same defence that protects the post office for being sued for libel over a story in a newspaper it delivers is the same generally that protects the ISPs. That’s been coming under pressure, not so much from the dangers of libel but from the technology giants’ slowness in dealing with seriously dangerous content – from self-harm to radicalisation. Ironically, that defence has also been questioned by Donald Trump, miffed about his tweets having fact checks slapped next to them. The world’s cheerleader against the traditional ‘mainstream’ media and one of social media’s biggest personalities is questioning the status that gives the media platforms so much power and advantage.

He is right that it should be harder than it is for these platforms to make the innocent disseminator defence. True, they’re looking at millions upon millions of texts, images and videos, but these are some of the smartest tech companies in the world and their algorithms should be cleverer than they are. Or they could afford to employ more moderators. It certainly shouldn’t stop them checking the advertising they accept – if media owners have to, then why not the tech platforms? They are effectively publishers of advertising. If they feel the volume prohibits that, they should sell less space.

Will Donald Trump really tackle the social media giants in the way he is threatening? Unlikely, but governments around the world are putting more pressure on social media and technology platforms generally, on issues from controlling online ‘harms’ to paying more tax. It was always inevitable that the third industrial revolution would disrupt media, government, society and international relations.

The youngster with the great question would be an adult now, wading through even more rubbish than perhaps he, the early Californian idealists or Tim Berners Lee ever imagined.

If they feel the volume prohibits that, they should sell less space.

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