Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Facebook isn't the problem - human nature is at fault'

Pass the parcel: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and TD Eamon Ryan in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Pass the parcel: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and TD Eamon Ryan in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

So what is he? Is he the socially awkward, hoodie-wearing nerd who just happened to strike it lucky with Facebook?

Or is he the evil tech genius who wants the whole world to be conducted through his social network and a man who shouldn't be trusted?

Well, I suppose the answer is a little from column a) and a lot from column b).

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Mark Zuckerberg was in town this week for a meeting with those Irish politicians who are looking to foist more regulations on social media.

The meeting between the infamously shy multi-billionaire and politicians such as Eamon Ryan, James Lawless and Hildegarde Naughton seemed to be part blame game and part pass-the-parcel.

The TDs, operating as part of the wonderfully named International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News, want him to take more responsibility for the content that appears on Facebook. He replied that he's doing everything he can - honest, guv! - and that it was up to the various governments to introduce new laws to stop the proliferation of hate speech, electoral interference and the general craziness which has now transformed so much of social media into a truly depressing place.

Simply put - he played them. He knows that it's virtually impossible for one country to try to implement laws that may vary wildly to the rules of another country. Facebook, despite its offices in Ireland, is now a transnational behemoth which can do pretty much whatever it likes and he knows that placing the ball firmly back in the politicians' court means nothing will be done any time soon.

If you ask five different politicians what is the best ways to regulate the internet, you'll get five different answers. That's not because they are stupid, necessarily. It's just that trying to regulate the Wild West that is the online world is as hopeless as trying to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube - a frustrating and time-wasting exercise in futility.

But what none of them ever seem to ask is a more simple question - why should we even try to introduce more regulations? And if we do, will the new laws be legal, or overturned on appeal?

Far more importantly, will any new regulations simply give politicians even more powers over how the population expresses themselves?

There are several issues of concern when it comes to dodgy material on Facebook.

As the name of the politicians' group implies, there are problems with disinformation and so-called fake news, with particular emphasis on those dastardly Russians and their attempts to screw with the last election in the States.

That's actually a red herring which perfectly displays the great weakness of all politicians - too great a faith in their own intelligence and not enough faith in ours.

Fake news and propaganda have been around for far longer than any online platform. The cynic could even point to every single party political broadcast. It's not up to politicians to tell us what is real and isn't - the onus is on us, as individuals and free citizens, to be able to spot the nonsense.

If we were to ban everything that wasn't precise and accurate, we should shut down the advertising industry.

The other, much thornier, topic is trying to stop predators posing as children and sexually exploiting young and vulnerable people.

That certainly doesn't fall under any free-speech protections and far from being just another media scare story, is a genuine problem.

But trying to introduce age controls, as Naughton has suggested, is virtually impossible.

How can a politician demand data protection and privacy on the one hand, and then simultaneously call for people to hand over personal details such as their PPS number?

As we have seen from all the various massive data leaks in the last few years, only a fool would hand over confidential details - and forgive me for looking askance at Naughton's suggestion that all such data would then be destroyed.

She may be naïve enough to believe that nothing could go wrong but those of us in the real world have learned that whenever there is the potential for things to go wrong, they invariably will.

Politicians have a habit of coming along and making decisions with no thought to the longer consequences. Indeed, we see it currently in the UK, which is trying to bring in age controls to stop kids from accessing porn, which is obviously a good thing, by demanding proof-of-age, which has incensed privacy campaigners.

Ultimately, the main problem is also the main topic the politicians want to avoid. Facebook isn't the problem - human nature is.

Improved codes of conduct would be great, but as we saw in the recent documentary about Facebook moderators, they aren't capable of handling all the vile postings.

This is a problem with no easy answers but handing politicians the keys to the online kingdom is a recipe for disaster. After all, I don't want them deciding what I watch or say.

Do you?

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