This became apparent to me when running an event on social media recently. I spoke with fellow travellers who taught me a lot, and I’d like to talk about three lessons I took from that for the law in the social media age.
Dr Holly Powell-Jones of Online Media Law taught me about the lack of awareness that many people have of potential risks that can arise from use of social media, such as contempt of court, sexual offences claimants' anonymity, defamation, and parliamentary privilege. Her research has found that young people blame themselves a lot for things that go wrong on social media.
Some of the consequences that can result from these risks include custodial sentences in prison and thousands of pounds of liability. More public legal education about the pitfalls of social media use would make a huge difference.
Seyi Akiwowo taught me about how personally dangerous the online sphere is. Her organisation Glitch has been working to protect vulnerable people from online abuse. Their work has found that women are more at risk of online abuse and that there are very rarely any punishments for those that commit harm against women online.
It seems clear that paltry prosecutions and rare investigations don’t create a deterrent effect for perpetrators of online abuse. Platforms should ban abusive accounts more regularly and take a proactive role in encouraging respectful behaviour.
Cllr Areeq Chowdhury reminded me that much of what I see on my computer screen is not real. His work on misinformation and fake news is groundbreaking, and I encourage readers to watch his ‘deepfakes’, videos that represent the subject doing or saying something that they have never done. Did Corbyn endorse Johnson, or did Johnson endorse Corbyn?
In an increasingly sophisticated era where it is possible to show viewers anything the poster wishes them to see, tighter rules must be drawn around the use of deepfakes in the political arena. I need to know when a message has truly come from a government source or whether it is a fabrication in order to judge how I will act as a citizen; it is a matter at the very heart of our democracy.
Social media is very difficult to regulate, and I’ve argued above that we’re in a really difficult place where it is difficult to influence the actors involved, whether individually or collectively. One development that gives me some optimism is the Online Safety Bill currently before Parliament which does do some of these things above.
If I could wave a magic wand I would create a legally enforceable international treaty on freedom of speech and protection from online harm that would seek to balance these two competing aims. That’s not going to happen though, and so I believe as a starting point that every social media company should have an objective standard, a ‘harm threshold’ past which content should be deleted or the poster asked to mitigate the harm they have caused. Harm should be construed broadly to include political, personal or financial harm.
With this principle in place I believe the legal system could evolve flexibly to create precedents for understanding the role of the law in relation to our social media.