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.
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.