Regulators, mount up...

Clarke's Comment

As we prepare for our crucial Renew Conference in September (reserve your place here), we are going to take an opportunity each week to highlight issues we care about and ones that we feel the Renew approach of fairness and reform might usefully address.

One of the most concerning issues to have arisen in recent years is that of increasing and undeniable divisions opening up in our society.

This has taken many forms: the EU referendum opened up a new wound that remains raw, that of Leave vs Remain, which has become a cypher for broader social divisions along the lines of open vs closed society, social (and economic) conservatism vs social (and economic) liberalism, the shorthand for which has become the abominable ‘woke’ debates on identity politics. Other divisions more resemble the reopening of old wounds. The oft-confused and lazily cited Red and Blue ‘Walls’ hark back to the North/South divide discussions reminiscent of the Thatcher era, and talk of the break-up of the UK has brought back decades-old (even centuries-old) fights over the status of Scotland and Ireland. These arguments and rivalries provide the background to perhaps the most obvious symptom of sickness we observe in everyday life, which is the prevalence of online abuse, highlighted most recently by the treatment of black footballers, but also common in the catastrophic degradation of public discourse we have witnessed since 2016.

When we conducted our Listen To Britain tours in 2018-19, the degradation of public discourse was one of three phenomena most lamented throughout the country (the other 2 being the polarization of the Labour and Conservative parties and the diminishing calibre of elected MPs in Westminster).

Whilst it is clear that our elected officials have exacerbated this by stoking culture wars, both nationally and within their own parties, much of the anger has been directed to online platforms where the majority of the abuse is taking place. As I have mentioned here before, our experience of knocking doors and canvassing high streets from Darlington to Mansfield to Blackburn to Exeter to Newport to Edinburgh to Colchester to Birmingham has shown us that ordinary people (even those who vehemently disagree with our points of view) are extremely civil and polite in face-to-face situations. How is it then, that the online world appears so different and so toxic?

Many have pointed to the nature of the algorithms that prioritise controversial topics, which tend to provoke more engagements. The same criticism has been levelled at social media platforms on the topic of fake news, conspiracies and content likely to provoke anger and resentment. There is also the fact that we are more likely to comment on and share issues we strongly disagree with than ones we have more milder opinions about. However, the need to better regulate social media platforms is now impossible to ignore.

Much as online retailers have galloped ahead of bricks and mortar businesses by taking advantage of lax, leaky or entirely absent legislation on tax and employment law, the social media behemoths have largely destroyed traditional publishing media by exploiting the loopholes that allow them to be distinguished from hard-copy newspapers, magazine and periodicals.
Companies like Facebook are essentially treated like noticeboards - they provide a service, a place where people can post information, but they take the absolute minimum of responsibility for the nature and the consequences of those posts. Publishers, on the other hand, are required to hire legions of fact-checkers and lawyers on top of professionally trained journalists and investigators in order to conduct business whilst staying on the right side of the law. Clearly, this has to change. Shifting responsibility for hate speech, abuse and conspiratorial falsehoods back onto the effective publisher would immediately create a fairly compelling incentive for these platforms to clean up their acts.
It is also worth noting that the vast proliferation of free content that has made these companies so profitable has been largely driven by a single factor. Anonymity.
 
If the New York Times or the FT were allowed to publish false, libellous or abusive articles by ‘anonymous’ authors with impunity, it would be considered utterly scandalous. And yet, this is what happens every minute of every day in every time zone across the planet on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok and the rest. And when a complaint occurs? Shoulders are shrugged. Not our problem. 
In addition to being treated as publishers, online platforms must be compelled to act on the issue of anonymity. It is no surprise to learn that the vast majority of actionable abuse comes from anonymous accounts. Cowardice thrives behind the veil of deniability. If, for example, every Twitter account has to be linked to a public and verifiable identity, imagine the effect this would have, overnight, on the level of discourse on that platform. An alternative approach might be that of silo-ing, with platforms such as Twitter divided into 2 sections, the public and the anonymous. Public figures and those with verified accounts engaging with them in good faith would be permitted entry to public Twitter. Trolls, bots and anonymous abusers would need to remain in anonymous Twitter. The inability to abuse public figures would make anonymous Twitter a rather boring place to be, I suspect. Dating apps have already made this very sensible move, in order to protect their users.
If YouTube, for example, were to be held legally accountable for the nature of the content on its platform, (in the way that the BBC or Netflix is) the consequences for the proliferation of misinformation on COVID, vaccines and other nonsenses that impact public health would also be deep and significant. We know, too, that in the last two US Presidential elections (at least) Russian troll farms have been employed to sow racial and cultural division across US society. The way social media currently operates has allowed for this, and it must change.
 
We are still in the early, Wild West era of internet regulation, but common sense principles should act as important guides, those of responsibility, incentive and consequence. Just as we, as individuals must be held accountable for our words, opinions and actions, so must the vast organisations that profit from them. 
 
The outcomes for our society of a consequence-free legal environment for social media platforms have been dire and far-reaching. 
 
Where society pays, through negative externalities, for profits that accrue to private enterprise, it is up to the state to intervene on behalf of the electorate.
 
Our current government is more inclined to throw mud than to clean up public discourse.
 
It’s time for something new. 

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Have a great week

James and the Renew Team


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