Online abuse on Facebook and Twitter can’t be solved by regulation alone

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Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

The severity of abuse conducted online during 2017’s general election has brought the issue into sharp focus for politicians, some of whom have urged the prime minister to legislate against Facebook, Twitter and Google to make them liable for content posted on their sites.

Complaints about online harassment in the UK continue to rise. A recent response to a freedom of information request from the BBC revealed that, on average, the police receive 200 reports of online abuse each day – which has been described by Essex Police chief constable, Stephen Kavanagh, as just “the tip of the iceberg”.

But prosecutions under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 have fallen, according to the most recent official figures.

A report published recently by the Committee on Standards in Public Life made several recommendations, including bringing in a new law “to shift the liability for illegal content online towards social media companies”.

Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Google are currently protected under the European Union’s e-Commerce Directive (2000/31/EC), which states that such companies operate as “information society services”. Put simply, such services are defined as passive hosts rather than active publishers of content.

It means that social networks like Twitter are exempt from prosecution when users post illegal content, such as racist tweets, on their sites. They are only expected to remove such content after other users complain about the post. The committee said in its report:

The EU’s e-Commerce Directive is the reason that the social media companies do not search proactively for illegal content in order to remove it. The notice and takedown model incentivises service providers to avoid actively monitoring or taking preventative measures against illegal content so that they benefit from the hosting exemption.

But even with the supposed protection of the EU’s e-Commerce Directive, social networks haven’t entirely escaped regulation that forces them to act against illegal posts. In June 2017, Germany enacted legislation to fine social media firms (with a minimum net worth of £2m) if they failed to remove illegal content within 24 hours. Under those measures – which carry penalties of up to £44m – the content needs to be “clearly illegal”, which in the case of online abuse is not always easy to distinguish.

If the UK decides, post-Brexit, to abandon the e-Commerce Directive, it can develop an entirely new legal framework that could adequately tackle the proliferation of illegal posts on social networks, by holding these firms more directly accountable for comments posted on their sites.

Combating online abuse is a huge challenge

There is no quick fix when it comes to online abuse, in fact, there is probably more than one way to help overcome this problem in our society. It seems that each year, parliament creates a select committee to examine harassment on social networks, but it’s not any closer to tackling the issue.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has been criticised for failing to act fast enough to crack down on abusive and illegal posts. Shutterstock

Authorities in England and Wales currently use several laws to prosecute those who abuse others online. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Communications Act 2003; each is not without its faults.

Arguably, the law is struggling to keep up with how people communicate online. Specific regulation could tighten the fragmented approach the UK currently takes in controlling the problem of online abuse. By having legislation which is more precise then that of the Communications Act – for instance a working definition on the term “grossly offensive” – it could act as a deterrence within society.

Education, education, education

Online abuse can’t be curtailed by regulation alone. Social media dominates much of society today. More than 2 billion people use Facebook on a monthly basis, according to the company’s latest statistics. Given the popularity of social networks, more should be done to educate people about how they behave online. A green paper, issued by the government on its internet safety strategy, recommended that compulsory lessons should be introduced. It will include advice on how to behave online. Recently YouTube vlogger Jack Maynard found out the hard way how past tweets can come back to haunt you.

Social networks need to take more responsibility for what is posted on their sites and, sadly, the only way this is likely to happen is through regulation. It’s been well documented that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are slow at removing hateful and illegal content from their sites.

But those who post abusive messages online also need to take responsibility for their actions. It starts with educating young people about social media and the consequences of their actions.

The ConversationAny legislation enacted will need to take into account our rights to freedom of expression, but there is clearly a difference between voicing an opinion and being abusive.

Laura Bliss, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

You can tell more about a person from their Facebook page than by actually meeting them


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Linda Kaye, Edge Hill University and Helen Wall, Edge Hill University

We judge people all the time. Research shows that when we first meet someone, we instantly use features such as their attractiveness and facial expressions to form an opinion about how approachable and trustworthy they are. The Conversation

But what about when our first impression of someone is formed online, for example by looking at a Facebook page or an online dating profile? In these instances, we’re looking at a specially curated set of information about a person that only shows us what they want us to see. And yet a number of studies suggest that these profiles can often give away even more about someone’s personality than actually meeting them.

When psychologists study people’s personalities, they typically judge five key traits: extroversion, openness to (new) experiences, conscientiousness, emotional stability and agreeableness. One thing they often do is use questionnaires that measure these traits to compare our personalities with the impressions other people have of us.

These often involve participants rating how far they agree with a series of statements about their characteristics. Questions about extroversion, for example, involve statements such as “I am the life of the party” and “I feel comfortable around people”. This produces a total score for each trait, building an overall picture of each participant’s personality.

Researchers can also use these questionnaires to judge how people perceive others’ personalities. We typically think that extroversion plays a key role in our impressions of others during face-to-face contact. This means that we are more likely to have favourable emotions about a person we have never met before if we perceive them to be extroverted.

The real window to the soul. Shutterstock

In recent years, researchers have also begun comparing our personalities with the impression we give through our Facebook profiles. Research has generally shown that we are remarkably good at using profile pages to make valid judgements of how open to experience people are. We also make fairly accurate judgements about how conscientiousness and extroverted others are.

What’s interesting is that we’re not so good at accurately judging some of these personality traits in face-to-face meetings. We rarely judge someone to be open to experience from our first impression of them because it is hard to work out how creative and open-minded they are. But extroversion is more easily detected in face to face contact because we tend to be pretty good at detecting whether people are chatty and sociable or not.

Visible features

Facebook provides a different set of markers or cues that allow us to make judgements about people online but that aren’t evident or are harder to detect from a first face-to-face meeting. For example, research suggests someone’s relationship status, interests, group membership, creative photos and even written vocabulary can help you form valid impressions of their openness.

This is important because if you like someone based on their Facebook profile page, you’re likely to like them in the real world. So producing an online profile that has enough cues for people to judge you accurately is particularly important for those instances when first impressions count, such as in online recruitment or dating.

The ability to more accurately judge some personality traits through online profiles suggests online dating can be a good way to seek out potential partners. Contrary to what you might expect, research has found that online daters tend to be more attracted to people who have dissimilar levels of openness and conscientiousness.

The research doesn’t explain why opposites tend to attract in this way, but we could speculate that people often like the idea of trying something different when it comes to online dating, particularly if they’re only dating casually. It also suggests the dating sites that match people according to similar personality types may be operating in the wrong way.

Of course, the limitation of using online profiles to judge someone is that they could just be lying. But usually, Facebook pages and other profiles have a kernel of truth that reveals something we can’t always access from meeting someone face-to-face.

Linda Kaye, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Edge Hill University and Helen Wall, Lecturer in Psychology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.