Sunday 15 September 2019

Power without true responsibility

'What is not so easy to justify is the failure to face up to the dark side of social media.' (Stock photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA)
'What is not so easy to justify is the failure to face up to the dark side of social media.' (Stock photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA)

For some time now, we have been rightly in thrall to the benefits of the internet - worldwide communications and the phenomenon of social media. And successive governments have kow-towed to the international social media facilitators, treating their tax affairs with the lightest of touches. That approach can probably be defended politically on the basis of trying to attract business to this country, thus creating jobs.

What is not so easy to justify is the failure to face up to the dark side of social media. We have seen the rise of fake news and fake political advertising and the effect this can have on the democratic process wherever it exists throughout the world. Social media has been a weapon and propaganda for terrorists, and the weapon of choice for the dangerous invective that emanates from the White House these days.

We have seen too the growth of child abuse through the internet, and its corollary, vigilantism, where potential paedophiles are ensnared.

And while this has led to some successful court cases, those involved in prosecutions fear the difficulty such an approach faces in the judicial process where the rules of evidence and chain of custody are important.

There is also the potential for innocent people to have their lives ruined. Worse, in some instances, those ensnared have taken their own lives. Thus social media has effectively created a potential death penalty for such crimes.

Social media has also brought into the lives of our children a form of ever-present bullying. And again, in some instances, this has had fatal consequences. More recently we have had to focus on the trolls who dish out what President Higgins last week called "abuse, aggression and anger" to almost anyone who comes into the public eye.

It may be a politician (especially a woman politician), it may be a sports star or a performing artist. It doesn't matter and there is no logic or sense to it.

At times, it can seem like those who control and own the technological engines of social media accept no responsibility for this coarsening of the public discourse and gradual erosion of civilised society.

Technically they, and those often evil ranters they facilitate, are subject to the laws of defamation. But the trolls are mostly untraceable and the multinational controllers are granted a fools' pardon not available to any other publisher with the claim that they merely provide the tools and have no way of knowing in advance what someone will say through their medium.

And even when this evil is pointed out to them, they are slow to remove the damaging material.

The precautions they take in terms of content supervision are invariably the very least they can get away with in an effort to keep down costs. Nor do they seem to do much to protect the individual right to privacy posed by the regular hacking on an industrial scale of personal details from one data bank or another.

Inward investment and the jobs that are attached to that concept are important, but so too is the duty of the government - and all governments - to speak truth to these great commercial powers and to tell them they are not above the law. They can no longer be allowed to abrogate to themselves the harlot's prerogative through the ages - power without responsibility.

Sunday Independent

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