Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden has called for greater policing and regulation of social media in the wake of the US Capitol riots on 6th January.
Writing for The Times, Dowden highlighted the transformative impact that social media has had upon public discourse and popular culture over the past decade. However, he warned that the negative influences of social media are steadily beginning to affect society.
“We have a new printing press,” Dowden claimed. “But it’s an invention whose implications society and governments are just beginning to grapple with.”
“With so many of us now consuming our news and information through social media, a small number of companies wield vast power in shaping how we see the world,” he said.
Dowden appears to have fired a broadside at social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook in the wake of recent decisions to suspend or ban Donald Trump from their platforms.
In particular, he criticised what could be interpreted as selective moderation of content and individuals on each respective platform.
“Iran’s Ayatollah has a Twitter account, whilst the elected President of the United States is permanently suspended from holding one,” he said.
Twitter’s decision to outright ban Donald Trump from the platform was met with disdain and celebration in equal measure. Critics of the decision warned it sets a dangerous precedent and amounts to censorship of political views or opinions.
Conversely, opponents of Trump and the political right welcomed the decision as a positive step for moderating the spread of misinformation and hateful content on social media.
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To add further confusion to an already convoluted debate, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the decision but agreed it sets a dangerous precedent and further “fragments” public conversation.
Dowden noted that Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg had posts removed on Facebook for violating the site’s child nudity policies; the picture in question was the iconic ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph taken during the dying days of the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, he argued, the social media platform failed to respond swiftly to the proliferation of harmful misinformation in Myanmar. Fake news spread via the social media platform led to violence against Rohingya Muslims across the country.
“Those facts alone should make anyone who loves democracy pause for though. The idea that free speech can be switched off with the click of a button in California is unsettling, even for the people with their hands on the mouse,” Dowden wrote.
My piece in today’s @thetimes ✍️ on the Government’s role in social media taking content down and bans
Decisions affecting democracy should be made democratically https://t.co/K2Aowuj2y1
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) January 18, 2021
The Digital Secretary warned that the future of social media will be critical to political discourse. Greater regulation and transparency could be the solution to ensuring that social media is both a safe, but open online environment.
Achieving this will be a significant challenge, however. “As we enter a new era in our relationship with tech, who should decide its rules?” he asked.
“We need to be able to define what social media is and isn’t. Given it is now so crucial a part of public discourse, should we compare it to a utility?
“Or should we see social media companies as publishers, akin to newspapers – and therefore liable for everything they publish?” Dowden continued.
According to Dowden, neither options are suitable. The reality is that holding companies liable for each piece of content published would “break social media”.
On YouTube, for example, 500 hours of content are uploaded every minute.
“However, we categorise social media, one thing is clear; as with other forms of mass communication, democratically-elected governments must play a role in regulating it,” he insisted.
Cracking Down on Big Tech
The UK Government has set in motion its own plans to take on big tech and social media companies.
Dowden said new legislation will help usher in a “new age of accountability for tech” and establish clear-cut rules for companies operating across a range of areas.
Measures set out in the Online Harms Bill could give the government more flexibility in tackling dangerous or harmful content online. Proposals also include new powers for Ofcom to force social media sites such as Twitter to remove and moderate abusive or extremist content.
Under these proposals, companies which fail to address the issue could face fines in a similar mould to GDPR regulation – a flat-rate fine of up to £18 million or a penalty amounting to 10% of the firm’s global turnover.
“We can no longer outsource difficult decisions,” Dowden said. “There’s now a burning need for democratic societies to find ways to impose consistency, transparency, fairness in the online sphere.”
Dowden insisted that new legislation will focus primarily on protecting “vulnerable” people across the country. However, new rules will also allow for greater flexibility in regard to free speech.
“Under our legislation, social media giants will have to enforce their terms and conditions consistently and transparently,” he explained. “This will prevent them from arbitrarily banning any user for expressing an offensive or controversial viewpoint.”