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 More Things Change…

This year it’s Black Lives Matter. Last year it was Extinction Rebellion. Before that #MeToo, GM crops and gun control. Every year it seems there’s a new cause for us to take to the streets, or, if we can’t be bothered doing that, to social media where we can make our feelings known. Of course, the common people – you and I – have a voice. We have greater means of expressing it, more platforms on which to exercise it, than have ever existed before. No-one in history has had the means we have to express our outrage, opinions and grievances.

But so what? Whether we take to the streets, vlog, blog or tweet, the result, it seems to me, is the same: things stay pretty much as they are. Hardly anything changes as the result of our outcry and protest. Maybe a few statues are demolished, a handful of sexual predators jailed, but ultimately there’s no lasting change. Perhaps a tokenistic law is created, maybe the media involve themselves for a short time in the issue of the day, but before very long everything reverts to the way it was: black lives are no more improved, the police go back to their former ways of behaving (once no-one’s looking any more), children continue to be abused, the environment is still in crisis, there’s another mass shooting by an idiot who’s bought a gun too easily and politicians carry on acting as if they’re above the law. There’ll be a new cause to excite ourselves about next summer. And another the year after that. Today’s preoccupation will disappear just as quickly as the latest fashion or pop sensation.

Why is this, and  why are we largely ignored when we take to the streets or campaign on social media about the things that concern us? Why does our voice count for so little? We live in democracies don’t we, here in Europe and in the States; we have a right to be heard, to be listened to and be taken into account – don’t we?

Well, no. We don’t. No-one is obliged to listen to us. They don’t even have to pretend to, unless they’re politicians running for election and then they are only pretending. Even then we don’t really have the choice we think we do; we’re told we can vote for the candidate of our choice, but we can’t; choice is so severely restricted it’s hardly qualifies as a choice at all. We vote for whoever the parties have put up for us to vote for; for a package that dresses either to the left or the right, without nuance or balanced consideration of the issues, and very often with no long term view of what we need to survive and flourish. That’s why so many fail to vote; they know intuitively that the more things change, the more they stay the same – so why bother?

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The rest of us dutifully select from an already selected few: the millionaires, billionaires, career politicians and failed businessmen who claim they have our best interests at heart, who say they can manage us and make our country great again. Once they have power they forget about us – their lives are so far removed from ours that they can’t possibly relate to the way we ordinary people live – and what the most vocal of us say we want. We think we won’t get fooled again, as the Who say in their politically astute song, but of course we will: we are fooled again, and again and again. Every time.

To be continued.