Thursday 17 October 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Social media is the Wild West of the internet - but looking to the Government to play sheriff is a mistake'

'The proposed Online Safety Act would tackle cyber-bullying, any material which promotes self-harm or suicide and would also target pro-anorexia websites.' Stock photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA
'The proposed Online Safety Act would tackle cyber-bullying, any material which promotes self-harm or suicide and would also target pro-anorexia websites.' Stock photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

When the so-called Momo craze began to capture the nation's imagination a few weeks ago, it became merely the latest in a long line of internet-related scare stories.

This mysterious and other-worldly creation would, we were informed, pop up while kids were watching something as harmless as 'Peppa Pig' and either urge or threaten the child to commit acts of violence or suicide.

It had all the hallmarks of the perils of allowing kids to watch videos unaccompanied. After all, the days of 'stranger danger' used to involve preparing your kids for how to cope with people they might meet out on the street. The idea that some malevolent entity can come into your home without you even knowing is a very modern parenting problem indeed.

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There was just one slight flaw with the Momo panic - it was all a hoax; an electronic urban legend which took on a life of its own and managed to terrify parents and adults for no reason.

Momo first appeared in Latin America a few years ago, and the media in those countries was awash with tales of children who had done unspeakable things at the apparent behest of the mysterious creature - said creature is actually a well-known piece of Japanese art called 'Mother Bird' - until reporters did some digging and discovered the whole thing was just another viral fable.

As it happens, Momo isn't the only hoax to terrify parents in recent times. The Blue Whale Challenge was apparently a game which induced impressionable kids to commit a variety of acts over the course of 50 days before taking their own life - until it emerged that too was a hoax. Likewise, the recent claims that kids were now challenged online to eat dishwasher tablets and snort condoms was, in modern parlance, 'fake news'.

But the culturally corrosive aspect of such sick stunts is that even when they are discovered to be bogus, the sense of trepidation and unease remains.

So at a time when parents are rightly worried about what their kids are watching, Richard Bruton's announcement that he wants to introduce new laws and regulatory powers to control what appears online will be welcomed by many. But that doesn't mean it can work.

The proposed Online Safety Act would, in the eyes of the Communications Minister, tackle cyber-bullying, any material which promotes self-harm or suicide and would also target pro-anorexia websites.

The plan would then create an Online Safety Commissioner who would issue Online Safety Certificates to social media content providers on the basis of how quickly and efficiently they tackle complaints made about material which appears on their platforms.

At first glance, that seems reasonable. After all, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that social media, for all its undoubted benefits, is an electronic Wild West and the irony of the moral panic over passing fads such as Momo or the Blue Whale Challenge is that there are enough genuinely troubling elements freely available without the need to invent any new ones.

According to the minister: "The situation at present, where online and social media companies are not subject to any oversight or regulation by the State for the content which is shared on their platforms, is no longer sustainable. I believe that the era of self-regulation is over and a new Online Safety Act is necessary."

Nobody is going to shed any tears if Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey are forced to take some responsibility for the material they allow to appear on their creations.

But the idea of having the State decide what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale would simply create far more problems than it would solve.

At the heart of this anxiety lies confusion.

A generation which can't remember a world before social media simply exists in an environment which is alien to older people, and it is no surprise that a survey by the American National Cyber Security Alliance found that only 13pc of all teenagers felt their parents "understood the extent of their internet use".

That figure is probably similar in this country and that's why many parents will welcome Bruton's proposals.

But politicians have been trying to find a way to regulate internet content for the last 20 years and have consistently, emphatically, failed at the task.

That's because, by the nature of their job, they tend to be older and therefore lack a properly nuanced understanding of the online realm. We should also be wary of the knee-jerk responses from politicians in all countries, not just Ireland, who have never met something they didn't want to regulate and control.

The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is that social media has simply exploded in influence beyond even the most fevered expectations - and it's having a devastating effect on society.

When it comes to online bullying, for example, the emphasis is rightly placed on the victim. But the reality is that many kids are both the bully and the bullied.

The even more harsh reality is that no government, no matter how well intentioned, can ever hope to adequately protect everyone from harmful content.

Trying to shut down a website will simply see it move to another server. Short of taking away someone's phone, you can cancel their social media account and they will just open a new one. Simply put, the toothpaste is out of the tube and there's no way of putting it back in again.

There is certainly merit to the idea of age controls, however flawed they may be. There is also merit in the idea of removing anonymity, which would at least force the nameless psychopaths who have turned social media into such a vile arena to take responsibility for their actions.

But, again, that would be difficult to enforce.

Most parents can help their child with the traditional schoolyard bully because they can relate to that experience, whereas many people over the age of 40 simply don't have the necessary frames of reference when it comes to virtual harassment.

Ultimately, the responsibility for what a child watches rests with the parents.

That's easier said than done, of course. But that doesn't change the fact that social media, whether we like it or not, is not going anywhere and while the various platforms may wax and wane in popularity, they are now simply a part of modern life.

Allowing the State to decide what media we consume is a dangerous path to go down, and would inevitably involve government over-reach and see those in power censoring views they didn't like.

Be careful what you wish for.

Irish Independent

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