Press Council Chairman calls for reforms in social media to tackle online harassment and abuse – article published by Irish Sun on 20 December 2020

By admin
Friday, 12th February 2021
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When Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc first came on the scene social media, as they came to be called, were a phenomenal success. They allowed ordinary people to have a voice and to exchange ideas. Everybody embraced the new means of communications as an exciting development. Social media was seen as a liberating means of communication for everyone.   Social media was unregulated, this was seen as freeing up comment from those in power, providing unmediated platforms for people to express their views. It was seen as a democratic force for good.   What could go wrong?

Social media has become a victim of its own success. Now, some decades later social media is mired in problems.

There is widespread use of social media for cyber-bullying, there are sites promoting self-harm and suicide, social media is being use deliberately to communicate disinformation to influence public life, there’s widespread abuse of public figures (especially women). In addition social media companies are accused of abusing the personal information of users, they’re accused of plagiarism through taking  news reports from news gathering organisations without payment, they’re accused of prioritising news reports for commercial rather than editorial reasons, they’re accused of not responding to complaints. The absence of any regulatory overseeing of social media has moved from being an advantage to a serious problem.

So what can be done to address these issues without losing the huge benefits of social media?

There are some very positive developments. Social media companies are facing up to some of the problems that beset their services. They are putting in place fact-checking, they are developing codes of practice, they are taking down offensive and damaging material. The problem is that these reforms are not taking place fast enough and there is cynicism about the motivation of the social media companies. Their critics say that most of the so-called reforms are mere window-dressing. What is needed is  regulatory and statutory control.

Some recent developments include in the United states both federal and state authorities are arguing that the social media companies are too big and too powerful, that they are abusing their dominant positions to stifle competition and that they need to be compulsorily broken up. Other developments include the Australian Government  ordering social media companies to pay for the news they “lift” from journalists, the European Union is moving rapidly to introduce a regulatory framework that would include codes of practice and protocols for dealing with complaints.

Here in Ireland the Government has published the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. This bill when it is enacted will see the establishment of an Online Safety Commissioner who will ensure that social media companies are obliged to take down promptly any damaging material. The Bill also proposes a new Media Authority to regulated broadcasting, online and advertising.

All of these developments are welcome if we are to return to the situation where social media contributes positively to the public good. There’s a lot to be done, but it is achievable. We need to get on board law-makers, opinion-formers, social media companies and the public through explaining the benefits of  properly accountable, transparent  and regulated social media platforms.

December 2020