Authorities should act quick to manage social media, says Digital Secretary
Digital secretary Oliver Dowden called for greater surveillance and regulation of social media following the January 6 riots in the U.S. Capitol.
Dowden wrote for The Times, highlighting the transformative impact social media has had on public discourse and popular culture over the past decade. However, he warned that the negative influences of social media are gradually starting to affect society.
“We have a new press,” said Dowden. “But it is an invention that society and governments are only just beginning to grapple with.”
“With so many of us now consuming our news and information on social media, a small number of companies have tremendous power in shaping our view of the world,” he said.
Dowden appears to have sparked a broadside with social media companies like Twitter and Facebook following a recent decision to suspend or ban Donald Trump from their platforms.
In particular, he criticized what could be interpreted as selective moderation of content and people on the respective platform.
“The Iranian Ayatollah has a Twitter account, while the President-elect of the United States is permanently suspended from running one,” he said.
Twitter’s decision to finally ban Donald Trump from the platform was received with both contempt and solemnity. Critics of the decision warned that it set a dangerous precedent and that it censored political views or opinions.
Conversely, opponents of Trump and the political right welcomed the decision as a positive step to mitigate the spread of misinformation and hateful content on social media.
To add further confusion to an already entangled debate, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the decision but agreed that it set a dangerous precedent and further “fragments” of public conversation.
Dowden noted that Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg removed posts on Facebook for violating the website’s children’s nudity guidelines. The picture in question was the iconic Napalm Girl photo taken in the final days of the Vietnam War.
In the meantime, the social media platform did not react quickly to the spread of harmful misinformation in Myanmar. Fake news spread through the social media platform resulted in violence against Rohingya Muslims across the country.
“These facts alone should make anyone who loves democracy pause. The idea that freedom of speech can be turned off in California with the push of a button is unsettling even to those with their hands on the mouse, ”Dowden wrote.
My post in today’s @thetimes ✍️ about the government’s role on social media to remove and ban content
Decisions that affect 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. More regulation and transparency could be the solution to ensure that social media is both a safe and an open online environment.
Achieving this will be a major challenge, however. “When we enter a new era in our relationship with technology, who should set the rules?” he asked.
“We have to be able to define what social media is and what isn’t. Should we compare it to a benefit, since it is now such an important part of public discourse?
“Or should we see social media companies as publishers, much like newspapers – and therefore be liable for everything they publish?” Dowden continued.
Neither option is suitable, according to Dowden. The reality is that holding companies would “break social media” for any content posted.
For example, 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
“We categorize social media, however. One thing is clear. As with other forms of mass communication, democratically elected governments have a role to play in regulation, ”he stressed.
Big tech take action
The UK government has launched its own plans to take over large tech and social media companies.
Dowden said new laws will help usher in a “new age of accountability for technology” and set clear rules for companies doing business in a number of areas.
The measures set out in the Online Damage Act could give the government more flexibility in combating dangerous or harmful online content. The proposals also include new powers for Ofcom to force social media sites like Twitter to remove and moderate abusive or extremist content.
Under these proposals, businesses that fail to address the issue could face fines similar to the GDPR regulation – a flat fine of up to £ 18 million or a fine of 10% of the company’s global sales.
“We can no longer outsource difficult decisions,” said Dowden. “There is now a burning need for democratic societies to find ways to enforce consistency, transparency and fairness in the online arena.”
Dowden insisted that new laws will focus primarily on protecting “vulnerable” people across the country. However, new rules will also allow greater flexibility in terms of freedom of expression.
“According to our legislation, social media giants have to enforce their terms and conditions consistently and transparently,” he said. “This prevents you from arbitrarily banning a user who takes an offensive or controversial point of view.”