For social media, the Regulator cometh. But should he?

social media
Image credit: jorgen mcleman /

Much has been written about social media and how it is moving beyond anti-social and is now in the realm of hurtful and evil. We now have content freely available that promotes or discusses everything from extremism to self-harming techniques (apparently self-harming is becoming competitive). At least one teenage suicide can be attributed to social media’s influence.

So, naturally, we turn to Governments to regulate it.

Figuring out how to do it will probably be the biggest balancing act ever attempted in the world of information.

Apart from the obvious arguments about free speech vs mindless censorship the mechanics alone are eye watering. Finding content that is malicious – on any digital platform – is difficult enough. Finding it before that content is shared is almost impossible.

Of course, it is not just the extremists who will be trying to avoid the crush of regulation. Social media, whether the ‘platforms’ that host it like it or not, are publishing content.

And people love reading scandalous crap.

This is not new and not just a digital problem. There are extremely successful paper based magazines and newspapers who publish pictures (taken from the next county) of a celebrity eating ice cream and looking a little tired. They Photoshop out the wedding ring, add an extra pound or two to the waistline and write an article which asks questions like ‘is it the end of the road for [insert name of celebrity’s] fairy tale marriage’?

Answer – no. Yet the publisher has done nothing wrong by asking the question.

TV is the same. Chat shows that talk about the weather (unless a tornado caused chaos) would fold like wet cardboard. Ones that can attract the grudge filled sister of someone who just married a Prince and can get her to say that she is just a gold digger are going to get attention.

The problem with social media is that the publishing process is controlled by the users and the sheer scale and speed involved create impenetrable challenges. Do you use blanket regulation, which is by nature vague, to make the company accountable for everything? This is being tried and fought against on the basis that it is a perfect excuse for Governments to crack down on everything they do not like.

Imposing fines is another route. Yet the problem with fines is that they simply add to the huge extra costs – and time – being incurred by the companies trying to control the monsters they have created. Make it too complicated to post interesting stuff on social media – for instance, force users to submit content for approval, or wait for several hours before it appears – and it misses the point of ‘good’ social media. Immediacy.

Social media has become both good and bad. Governments’ reaction to the bad is to regulate and punish.

Partial answers will lie in technology. AI will (at some point) be good enough to do its bit. Partial answers lie in education, teaching vulnerable people that social media can be toxic, which is an immense job in itself. Partial answers may lie, to some degree, in regulation.

What is certain is that this issue, particularly when viewed in the context of the privacy vs security battles will remain one of the key issues of the next few years.

What is also certain is that clever people will continue to exploit users’ need for entertainment, scandal and gossip.

What is less certain but entirely possible, is that this situation continues and worsens and we are driven from public Facebook like platforms into private chat rooms, which we control.

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