Social media companies need to do more to police harmful content on their platforms

Will Gore
Facebook has come under fire after a father killed his 11-month-old daughter on a live video streamed on the site: Reuters

The Home Affairs Select Committee has not held back in its criticisms of social media firms over their failure to remove abusive and extremist content from the internet. The big beasts of the social media world – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – were said by MPs to be doing “nowhere near enough” to combat inappropriate and illegal content. Committee chairwoman, Yvette Cooper, described the situation as a “disgrace”. It can only be hoped that an executive summary of the report is available in suitably tweet-sized chunks.

It is not enormously surprising that the Commons’ panel should have been so decisively disapproving. When executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter appeared in front of the Committee in March they were told that their answers were not “particularly convincing”. And it is plain that MPs are increasingly troubled by the prevalence of illegal material online. In part that reflects concern among security agencies regarding the internet’s potential to encourage physical acts of terrorism and other serious crimes, notably those of a sexual nature. Additionally, the murder of Jo Cox last summer shone a light on the extent to which MPs are themselves victims of abuse online. It is no wonder that Cooper and her Committee felt compelled to demand action.

Up to a point it is hard to disagree with the MPs. Indeed, even Facebook et al appear to accept that more needs to be done (although they always seem to say that). Precisely what politicians would like the social media giants to do is less clear, aside from find a magic algorithm which recognises improper content the moment it appears – and then deletes it. Bearing in mind that YouTube alone has a billion users and that 400 hours’ worth of video content is uploaded to the platform every minute, that may be easier said than done. Still, the Home Affairs Committee merrily assumes that its targets are “big enough, rich enough and clever enough” to find a solution.

When it comes to rich enough the MPs may be onto something; YouTube’s operating profit in 2016 was $30.4bn. In Germany, proposals have been made to fine companies vast sums if they do not remove illegal content within a certain timeframe. It seems inevitable that similar measures will be considered by lawmakers in the UK – assuming they get time off from the endless Brexit debate.

There is, however, a broader narrative at play here, one which pits the giants of the new media world against those of the old. In their fight against Google and the rest, MPs can rely on staunch support from traditional news media companies, which see the modern digital monoliths threatening longstanding business models. The battle for eyeballs and advertising has never been more fierce. From where the old media sit, the companies which dominate the internet appear to have all the advantages of being publishers without many of the responsibilities.

But perhaps even this isn’t quite enough to explain why the likes of Google and Facebook are increasingly under the cosh. Rather, the current face-off can be seen as part of the much more wide-ranging, even existential clash between globalisation and modernity on the one hand, and the forces of conservativism and parochialism on the other.

In the week that marks two decades since Labour’s landslide election win in 1997 it is instructive to look back at that high watermark for optimistic British engagement with liberal, global ideals. Then, just seven per cent of the UK population were internet users – yet it seemed as if the web was an integral part of that sunnier outlook which saw a shrinking world as a good thing, not a negative; the digital revolution would, we thought, help unlock the educational and commercial potential of all nations, democratising as it went. Twenty years later and the world has become a shadier, less hopeful place. The web’s darker recesses – not envisaged perhaps by sunny Californians back in the early 90s – are more disturbingly tangled than ever.

Of course, there is a final irony here, which is that the resurgent forces of nationalism and other “tribal” interests which seem so to threaten the ideals on which the net was built, have themselves been enabled and energised by the net’s ever wider reach. Like pop before it, the internet may be on the verge of eating itself – will it sacrifice its bite to survive?