I attended an MRS hosted debating group session at the House of Commons recently and am pleased to report that the impressiveness of the surroundings was easily matched by the quality of the speakers, and the debate itself. The motion was ‘Social Media can’t be trusted with self-regulation’, with Hugo Rifkind from The Times and Jo Causon from the Institute for Customer Service arguing for the motion. The (with hindsight) unenviable task of arguing against the motion was taken up admirably by Stephen Woodford from the Advertising Association and Andrew Mann, previously Vice President of Insight and CRM at Asda.
Hugo led with his argument for the motion and had an impressive wealth of (somewhat damning) facts around Facebooks handling of the recent issues they have had; namely the furore around micro targeting and the misuse of Facebook during the US presidential election campaigns, and more recently of course the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The evidence for the motion already seemed somewhat undeniable.
That said, Stephen made some excellent points, citing the changes that social media companies have already put in place in response to the growing pressure around regulation, most particularly the machine learning that Google and YouTube have started utilising to identify and remove extremist content. They certainly appear to be making the right noises/moving in the right direction (if you can believe them).
Jo and Andrew then added considerable weight and insight into both sides of the argument, Andrew in particular pointing out that change works best when it comes from within – citing racial and homophobic chanting in football stands, which (despite laws against it) only really started to see a significant shift in this behaviour being deemed ‘acceptable’ once the football clubs themselves got on board and started banning anyone partaking in this behaviour from the grounds; for life.
At this point the debate was thrown open to the floor for comments for or against. It’s here that I feel the debating group raises the bar – the quality of comments from the floor was outstanding. Everyone who spoke offered a different perspective and insight into the issue.
Jan Gooding, president of the MRS, pointed out the disappointing stance that social media has taken in the past, in claiming that they are not responsible for content that appears on their sites, because they are not ‘publishers’ of that content. And she drew comparisons from her time at BT, and a small voice there who (until a larger faction won out) argued that they were not responsible for any child pornography appearing through their channels, because they were simply ‘the pipes’.
Another person pointed out that the people sat ‘around the table’ at any discussions over social media regulation may not even be aware of which platforms were being used, specifically, by under 18’s. Apparently at a recent session they were tasked with naming the top 10 social media sites used by adolescents, and they only managed to get 1 (Snapchat) correct. So, do we even know where the social media damage to our youth is taking place?
And of course, there were lots of comments bringing up the trust issue. Can we trust social media companies, who are essentially in it for profit, to self-regulate if they think it will harm their bottom line? Would Twitter seriously ban Donald Trump if he crossed a line and risk him taking his social media business elsewhere? And of course, how much trust is there in whoever would be appointed to oversee any external regulation? Is the relationship between the government and these huge social media companies not a bit too ‘harmonious’? Are there other factors at play which mean we couldn’t really trust the government as an overseer? With the government seemingly allowing these huge companies to exploit loopholes in tax laws without incurring what would be seen by many as proportional financial penalties it would seem that there is something to that argument.
In the end, despite valiant arguments from the against side, the motion was overwhelming voted for in favour; in theory. However, nobody claimed to quite know how, or who, or where; and it remains to be seen where it goes from here. But it’s certainly a debate worth having, and I’m very much looking forward to the next debating club event.