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NEWS17 July 2018

Time for social media to be regulated

News UK

Last night, The Debating Group, chaired by Christine Jardine MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Scotland, and sponsored by The Market Research Society, proposed the motion ‘Social media can’t be trusted with self-regulation’.

Speaking in support of the motion were Hugo Rifkind, columnist for The Times, and Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, with Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association, and Andrew Mann, ex-vice president insight and CRM, Asda, opposing it.

Rifkind opened with a list of dates and events cataloguing Facebook’s reluctant about-turn on the problem of fake news and accounts. While two days after Trump was elected, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had said “the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way — is a pretty crazy idea”, Rifkind pointed out that by April the following year he had admitted it removed 30,000 fake accounts before the French election. In September, Facebook told US Congress it had, after all, discovered 300 Russian-backed accounts and about 4,000 Russian backed adverts, with Zuckerberg publicly asking for forgiveness.

“At the end of October, Facebook admitted such things had actually been seen by 126 million people and the next month, upped that to 150 million, because it had forgotten about Instagram,” said Rifkind.

By the time Facebook started forcing political advertisers to identify themselves, and insisting that paid-for content is identified, it was 18 months too late, he argued. The problem is compounded by the fact that Facebook won’t share its data.

“This is the problem with allowing tech companies to regulate themselves. We, the public, cannot see into them. We, the public, cannot even see which bits of them need regulating. Sometimes, they deign to tell us. More often, they are forced too. By then, always, it is too late,” said Rifkind.

He went on to list the other arguments he could have used beyond fake such as cyber-bullying and hate speech. “I could have talked about the way they make a mockery of copyright laws, and libel laws, and contempt of court, and disavow themselves of responsibility in each and every case.”

While claiming not to be a fan of regulation generally, he supported Sharon White, chief executive of Ofcom, in her call for social media companies to be independently regulated. “These are vastly powerful companies – maybe the most powerful there have been. Even if they are well meaning, they have shown that they are not competent to do it by themselves. They exist to disrupt, which means disruptors will always take advantage of them.”

Rifkind argued we need regulation rather than going the route some countries have in just banning them out right. “In China? No Facebook. These are not options open to a democracy – we need to be smarter,” he said, urging an enforcement of existing laws.

Woodford countered that there was a case to be made for trusting and that in a free and competitive market, advertisers could apply huge amounts of pressure. “Last week Twitter said it was taking down fake accounts – it’s seriously trying to address this issue,” he said.

He argued that for most people social media “enhances lives” and that it’s in the social media companies’ self-interest to regulate themselves – “if they don’t, they will lose users and advertisers”.

Google-owned YouTube has developed AI systems to identify terrorist content and it is scaling this up to address the issues while, since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Woodford argued that Facebook had announced a “slew of initiatives” which demonstrated their reacting to the problems.

“In the US, all political ads are archived – you can see who’s paying for the ads and all the variants of them – these are big changes to improve transparency.”

Causon’s supporting arguments for the motion included that if we regulate for TV, water etc, it’s only logical to regulate social media, especially as they have been reluctant to take up responsibilities “casting doubt on their ability, or desire, to do it”.

Meanwhile Mann went for the free speech line of argument – “if you regulate social media you regulate free speech” as well as saying that, as a marketer, he started with the customer and “if you don’t do what’s best for the customer, they will move somewhere else”.

“Who would regulate? Nation-state interfering undermines the global economy,” argued Mann. “It stifles competition and enables politically driven censorship.”

The final vote was a resounding majority for the motion.