In late March 2014 the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee said that stronger action must be taken to protect children from online bullying and pornography, and warned that internet firms “may face prosecution for failing to show commitment to safeguarding youngsters”.
At the time John Whittingdale MP said that “those who profit from the internet must demonstrate the utmost commitment to protecting children”.
If the MPs’ statements are followed through it will be a giant step in the right direction. Yet, it seems like horror stories regarding peoples’ activities and experiences online, particularly on social media, have been in the news every day. The UK of course is not alone with the problems we face. Other countries have had their own troubles too. Bullying, trolling, revenge porn, and hate speech are just a few of the negative activities that seem to be in the newspapers on a daily basis.
So, are we likely to face these types of issues forever, or worse still, are they likely to significantly rise in number? Are they now simply a part of life that we have to put up with, whilst maintaining that British stiff upper lip?
I believe that we have now, luckily, reached a turning point. Social media companies are beginning to change. While many of them, particularly those based in the States, are concerned about doing anything that might be interpreted or spun as hurting free speech, they are starting to realise that they can’t simply carry on as they have been.
Being socially responsible, which is what they aspire to be (and probably what they need to be) requires them to better protect their users and others. Share value will undoubtedly influence their actions, so ongoing public pressure will cause them to react. They will have little choice and we are already seeing the beginning of change.
While I’m sure that they receive lots of complaints, a percentage of which will undoubtedly be without merit, and, whilst they face Government interference around the Globe which sometimes isn’t justified (look at what happened recently in Turkey with the service being blocked), they nevertheless have to get better at dealing with complaints. Some of the issues faced, as we have recently seen, have been really serious in nature. Threats of violence, hate speech, intimidation, bullying, and even deaths resulting from online bullying.
No rational person expects them to vet everything that users post beforehand (although some categories of activity can and should be prevented automatically), but what we do expect is for them to get better at dealing with complaints once they are received. They must get faster (it can often take a week or more), they must have real people available to deal in person with serious complaints (in the same way as they have real people available if you want to advertise with them – which I find an intriguing indication of their priorities so far).
Whilst adding a “report abuse” button is obviously a step in the right direction for Twitter, if the complaint isn’t dealt with expeditiously, they could add 10 buttons but they wouldn’t be of much practical use to victims.
Likewise, blocking someone doesn’t mean that the abuse stops, it just means the victim can’t see it. That may be of value in some situations, but victims often fear what is being said to others about them as much, if not more, than what is being said directly to them. This is particularly so among teenagers. Not knowing can therefore be worse for the victim.
In reality, the debate is not about free speech or about the right to offend. It’s about the kind of society we want to live in and to bring up the next generations. The internet is a wonderful invention that has changed lives forever, but, how many lives have to be seriously affected, and, how many more deaths do there have to be before public pressure boils over.
We the public have started to demand change and we will ultimately win. The question remains whether the social media companies will need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line, or, whether they will do the right thing sooner largely on their own accord.
We need to dictate what kind of future we want to live in. The future will undoubtedly include social media (and whatever comes next) but we shouldn’t let the lowest forms of internet usage dictate what is normal in the mainstream.
I believe that generally speaking social media companies want to do good, to make a difference, and, to improve lives. However, when it comes to dealing with complaints their naiveté has been compounded by a near manic belief that anything should be allowed or that it is not for them to decide. I realise it isn’t easy for them, most rational people believe in the principle of free speech, and in America companies face difficulties from pressure groups every time they do anything which might be regarded as limiting speech; but some things done online are quite obviously unacceptable.
Call me an optimist, but I believe that we have started to turn a corner, both in terms of the companies involved and those individuals who would use the web to spread their negative agendas.
Social media companies now realise they can’t call all the shots – we’ve seen this with Facebook and the beheading videos, with Twitter in relation to the addition of a report abuse button, and, with Ask.fm in relation to their policies.
We are also beginning to see individuals pay for their actions; they are not as anonymous as perhaps they believed. People can now see that there are potential consequences and that they may face punishment if their activities are serious enough.
The ‘two sides’ are being slowly inched towards a more desirable position in the middle. It will of course take time and while there will always be undesirable behaviour in society (and the internet is a mere reflection of this), and, while there will always be those who will say things that we are against or that we are unhappy with, together we can still make a difference.
Don’t believe the myth that we need to put up with everything online, or that it’s impossible to achieve change, or, that we cannot speed up that change. Do not acquiesce if you want a better environment for children and adults alike. Make yourself heard, use social media to let everyone know what you are not prepared to put up with, and, tell your local politicians what you think.
There will always be dark corners of the internet, however, let’s work together, let’s dictate what is socially acceptable, and further marginalise the trolls and bullies, to pave the way for a better future. Ensure the Darknet doesn’t become the norm.
Gideon Benaim is a Partner and Head of Reputation Protection at Michael Simkins LLP.