Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Almost every industry in the world has regulations in place to ensure safety and enforce constitutional values. Philip Rawlings of Queen Mary, London for example, usefully outlines the reasons for, and positive outcomes of, financial regulation in the banking sector, whilst the aviation industry is controlled by bodies such as the Secretary of State for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority. But when it comes to the internet, for some absurd reason, the big players are maniacally reluctant to introduce any measures to protect its customers.
Whilst much of the conversation around net regulation has centred around data privacy, the bigger question should be about protecting the safety of people online, which includes their mental health and susceptibility to fake news. When 81% of children under the age of two have some kind of digital footprint, there is no getting away from the internet, but it is simply not good enough to leave the social media giants to self-regulate.
Mark Zuckerberg has ‘promised to work with law enforcement‘ on issues like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion which appear on his platform, but this verbal pledge from a man who owns only 28% of Facebook has no way of being enforced. Despite a greater awareness of the problems associated with social media, the UK teenage suicide rate has doubled, and platforms continue to host a virtually unregulated market of illegal images, suicide-inducing bullying, and democracy-damaging misinformation. Whilst a defence of free speech is an often noble and worthy quest, its results can materialise as hate, violence, far-right and far-left propaganda, and in the darkest corners of the web, child pornography.
Wild West-style freedom of speech on social media is causing communities to self-destruct, and online extremists, including low-level trolls, will never be dealt with properly in such an atmosphere. Anonymous death threats, cowardly abuse aimed at politicians and journalists, and harassment fester in the vomit-inducing, vermin-infested cesspit of free social media. Bullying at school isn’t tolerated. Bullying in the workplace isn’t tolerated. Why, therefore, is it perfectly acceptable for gangs of bile-spouting trolls to thrive in unregulated comment sections and online threads?
This is not an issue of being a snowflake, and don’t tell me to get out of the kitchen, because this heat is not something anyone should tolerate. Liberty on the web is a nice idea, but in practice exposes us all to the darkest, most primal and arbitrary impulses of online trolls whose words can escalate from irritation to making life a living hell.
Criticism is good. In journalism, for example, it is undoubtedly useful, though sometimes uncomfortable, to be told that a citation is flawed, that an argument is unfounded, or that a position should be redrafted. But to be subjected to death threats, to repeated personal slurs against your character, and to patronising, demeaning jokes is not simply ‘part of the job‘. If a critic or peer has an issue with your work, that is exactly what we should be encouraging in the media – each person has the right to respond constructively or, even better, to write an alternative article in productive conversation with your own.
But in a climate where people are dying, (and many more are experiencing serious mental health crises as a result of lower-level harassment) because of the brutal digital war zone which is social media, and in which participants refuse to engage the empathetic cells of their brain when playing the role of keyboard warrior, our free digital footprint must be moderated by a sense of responsibility.
Our internet needs heavy-handed regulation to save our society, particularly its young people, from tearing itself apart. I fully accept that people have concerns about regulation of the internet, notably about those who will be doing the regulating; speculation around bias and censorship that would inevitably run rife. Therefore, perhaps the social media world is not yet ready for my preferred option for posting and commenting online, which would involve a process of submitting for approval before anything goes public, with very clear rules for editors about what can and can’t be said, to sift out any bile.
So here is my compromise proposal: partly inspired by the AirBnb sign-up process, all users of social media platforms should provide government-approved photographic ID, which will be compared with a fresh photo for confirmation of identity. Full name (as on ID) and approved photo must be made public on your profile and any post you make, with no acceptance of pseudonyms or fake names. To fully verify a social media account, users must provide references, including one from the workplace, allowing employers to be connected to the profile, having access to any public post made. Not only will this encourage responsible usage of the internet, but also ensure no underage person has access to unsafe content. Any social media platform which does not comply with these standards will be shut down.
This might sound like an awful betrayal of our constitutional devotion to free speech, but hate and harassment cannot be tolerated in a civilised modern society which claims to value the health and well-being of each individual. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts, and it is time we start valuing that rather than bending over backwards for the repugnant social media giants who seek nothing but to divide and isolate us. Regulation is not only under-rated, but in some cases, it really works. Regulation is improving the quality of our air, the entitlements of tenants and landlords, and the rights of marginalised groups. By regulating what we say on the internet, we are not constraining free speech, but rejecting bullying and encouraging decency.