Policing Social Media?

I wrote this post in the middle of March, just before Don pitched Camp here, as a follow up to this post. Since then, the issues I address in it have moved on at an alarming rate. I’ve revised it to reflect these developments.

Who watches the watchmen? Should those who take it upon themselves to define what we are allowed to say or view be the same as those who police what we say and view? 

I’m not arguing for the protection of those who post abusive, hateful or libellous comments online. There is no place for racism, misogyny or homophobia in life and there are already laws for dealing with them. There is no reason they should not get a free pass on social media either. The question remains, however, who should be responsible for monitoring hate speech and either preventing or removing it. The same question needs to be asked of those comments that are considered, by whoever is going to decide these things, ‘harmful’ or constituting ‘misinformation’. Should the same official bodies that determine what is abusive, harmful or ‘misinformative’ be responsible for the actual censoring? This it seems to me, would be disastrous; the kind of thing that goes on in Russia, China and North Korea, not the ‘free’ west.

Nevertheless, let’s take look at the likely candidates for the role:

Governments. Should a government department regulate social media? As far as I’m aware, no such department exists in the UK or US at present. Governments themselves have, arguably, better things to do than monitor social media. Neither do they have the skills nor objectivity to exercise new, radical powers of censorship. It would be far too easy for them to decide that anything critical of their policies or actions is hate speech (or harmful or misinformation). In any case, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, governments already have far too much control of our lives.

The Police. The police have neither the resources nor manpower to monitor all that is said online. In the UK they don’t have sufficient manpower to intercept the many paedophiles operating online, let alone to monitor the comments of billions of ordinary folk. and haven’t they enough serious crime to be dealing with? 

Social media companies. Their algorithms have, so far, largely failed to eliminate abuse, while responding with unseemly zeal to blocking and barring perfectly innocent comments because of the presence of the odd trigger word. There simply aren’t enough humans to regulate comment, nor are social media companies in the business of deciding what is harmful or misinformative (though Patheos recently ousted bloggers who wrote anything critical about religion.) Governments may occasionally express their displeasure that companies are not doing more, but it’s difficult to see how they can. The slippery Sir Nick Clegg (behind Mark Zuckerberg in the picture), former UK MP and now second-in-command at Facebook, is not, as an establishment millionaire, the man for the job.

Users themselves. It isn’t realistic to think all users could be self-censoring. Many are not, nor are they ever going to be. Those with more extremist views, who have been blocked or banned by the popular social media companies, gravitate towards other sites, or create their own, that allow and even encourage such views (say ‘hi’ to QAnon, Breibart etc.) There is no moderation, in every sense of the word, on such sites (unless of course you happen to disagree with them, in which case you’re swiftly booted off.)

What to conclude? That governments have lost control of social media? Yes.  Though I would argue that control was never theirs to take. They’ve come late to the party and find, despite their gate-crashing attempts with new ‘misinformation’ laws, that they’re not being allowed in. Ultimately, however, these new laws are meaningless; a law that cannot be enforced is no law at all.

However…

Since I wrote this post, the UK’s Culture Secretary, the befuddled Nadine Dorries, has decided she wants to regulate streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+, lest they make available to paying adults content that might be regarded as ‘harmful’. If she is successful in having her bill pass into law, the government’s own media watchdog, Ofcom, will be able to force streamers to filter (out) what they provide in the UK, just as they have to do in China. It’s as if the late Mary Whitehouse finally won*. This is not what democratic governments are for.

* Mary, for my readers in the U.S., was a self-appointed guardian of public morals, not unlike your very own Monica Coles.

The Sorceress and the Cursed Chide

There was once a powerful sorceress who cast her magical spells to the delight of her acolytes, not to mention those for whom she conjured gold from the air around her. The sorceress then turned her attention to other matters important to her and cast other spells over these. But not everyone was as enamoured with these spells as they had been with her earlier ones. Some said she was a misanthrope who should no longer be casting spells, especially ones they did not agree with. Her new spells, they said, were designed to hurt and harm others, and were spreading hate. (They said this because they didn’t know hate was a verb and not a noun.) They responded to the sorceress with incantations of their own: a Cancelorium Censorium curse that would see her immediately silenced and eventually withered away to nothing. They wished fulsomely for her to be banned from ever casting spells again. The sorceress said she did not intend harm to anyone but needed to preserve something of the old magic she believed in.

Some of her detractors then appealed to the self-appointed Ministry of Freedom and Truth (MOFT) who took up the case, protesting to Professors Bloomsbury and T. Witter, asking them to shut down the sorceress’ means of casting her spells. But these professors, especially Bloomsbury, were among those for whom the sorceress had created much gold from nothing and they were loathe to cancel her. So they did not.

The Ministry then appealed to the Council of Wizards to write new rules that would, in the twinkling of an eye, render the sorceress’ spells ‘black art’ and so forbid them from ever being uttered again, anywhere, on pain of imprisonment in Azerbaijan or even the deathly gallows themselves. But the Ministry had forgotten that the last time the Council had been given the power to regulate what others could say it had introduced the infamous Incantation 28 that had prevented anyone from even mentioning that left-handed witches and wizards existed. It was not wise to consider embarking on such a road again. Fortunately, the Council was preoccupied with magicking away a pestilence that was stalking the land and had no time for quarrelsome spats between well meaning, but offended defenders of Freedom and Truth and controversial conjurors.

So the sorceress continued to cast her spells, while others continued to object to her doing so. Still others helped her create even more gold by buying her latest books about a striking shambling eccentric who was just the same as the striking shambling eccentric in her earlier books of wizardry and witchcraft. There was also a volume about an anthropomorphised farm animal that did rather well too, though some deemed it hateful to those who held such animals in low regard. Little wonder the sorceress shrugged her shoulders and set to creating another spell that, she had no doubt, would offend someone somewhere.

 

Enough frivolity. Where do I stand on these matters? As a trustee of an LGBT+  organisation, I am actively involved in the support of trans as well as gay, lesbian and questioning people. While I don’t necessarily agree with J. K. Rowling’s views on trans issues that she expresses on Twitter, I do believe she has the right to express them.

As part of a minority that has frequently been subject to censorship in the past, I cannot endorse the silencing of dissenting voices. Once we start to do that it becomes only a matter of time before it’s our turn again. If we want to be critical of religion and those who practise it, if we want to comment on politics, and challenge those who do indeed espouse hatred; if we want to have a view on anything at all, we have to accept that others have the same right to express their opinions on matters that are dear to us.