Lies on the line: why MP Lucy Powell’s bill won’t solve the problem of online hate or fake news
Summary: Institutionalised forms of content regulation rest on the realistic assumption that all published content can been monitored and made to conform. If you can’t establish this expectation, this form of regulation becomes instantly redundant. That is why applying the old, publication-based regulatory model to Facebook et al is a distraction that only serves to make politicians feel good about themselves while actually increasing the dangers of online hate and fake news.
In the UK the phrase of ‘leaves on the line’ is firmly established within the national conversation as an example of an unacceptable corporate excuse. It is an excuse rail operators use around this time of year to explain delays to trains. The reason it is deemed unacceptable is that leaves fall off trees every year and have done so for quite some time and thus there is a realistic expectation that this is a problem rail operators should have cracked by now.
Which brings me to another problem where an expectation is building of a corporate fix: fake news and all forms of inappropriate online content/behaviour. This has clearly become something of big issue in recent times to the extent that governments are under considerable pressure to Do Something. And the Thing they are mostly looking to Do is to turn around and tell Facebook, Google, Twitter et al that they need to Do Something. In essence what governments are looking for them to do is assume a publishers responsibility for the content that appears on their platforms. The most recent example of this is the private members bill just introduced by the UK Member of Parliament, Lucy Powell (of which more in a moment).
You can see why this is a popular approach. In the first instance, it allows government to deflect responsibility away from itself or, at the very least, create an imagined space where established regulatory approaches can continue to have relevance. It is an approach which finds favour with the traditional media, which has to operate under conventional publication responsibilities and resents the fact that these new players are eating their advertising lunch while avoiding such constraints. To an extent, it even plays to the agenda of Facebook and Google themselves, because they know that in order to attract the advertising shilling, they need to present themselves as a form of media channel, if not a conventional form of publication. Facebook and Google also know that, despite all the regulatory huffing and puffing, governments will not be able to effectively deploy most of the things they are currently threatening to do – because the space they are trying to create is a fantasy space.
The trouble is – this approach will never work. Worse than that, it is dangerous. Continue reading