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.

Abuse of women MPs is not just a scandal – it’s a threat to democracy

Julia Gillard in Australia: another high-profile victim of online abuse. EPA

Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Following the intense election campaign of 2017, Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott spoke out about the racist and misogynistic abuse she received online.

Abbott revealed that she was subject to a litany of abuse on Twitter. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she described the comments she received as “characteristically racist and sexist”.

Abbott’s experiences are not just depressing on a personal level – they pose a threat to democracy.

The BBC recently reported that a huge number of women MPs are experiencing abuse on social media. The problem was so bad during the 2017 election, with several MPs making complaints to the government, that Number 10 asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the abuse of MPs during election campaigns.

Comments during the 2017 campaign included: “stab the c*nt”; “nazi witch” and “repatriate the b***h back to Africa”. The prime minister herself was called a “whore” by some Twitter users.

In Australia, the former prime minister Julia Gillard was subjected to twice as many abusive online comments as her Labor party rival Kevin Rudd between 2010 and 2014. Many of these statements were of a sexual nature.

Similarly, in the Democratic presidential primaries in the US, Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many abusive comments as her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

These types of comments have started to become the norm for women politicians. Gillard has said:

As a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sicking dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.

With so many people subject to online abuse, many are choosing to withdraw themselves from social media. In fact, a campaigner I recently interviewed about the online abuse she received was advised by the police to shut down her social media accounts.

But advising a woman to remove her online presence if she doesn’t want to be abused is akin to telling a woman that she needs to behave a certain way if she doesn’t want to be raped.

Rather than engaging in victim blaming, we should be tackling the behaviour of abusers. We need to be sending stronger messages to individuals that online abuse will not be tolerated. A full, in-depth inquiry is needed to establish if social media companies need to take more responsibly for what is posted on their platforms; or, if in fact, we need more specific legislation to govern social media. The likelihood is that we are now at a point where the law itself needs changing.

Who’d be a woman politician?

Online abuse may be seen as an everyday part of being a politician, but it’s a threat to democracy. Constant abuse aimed at politicians, especially female politicians, threatens to reduce the plurality of voices essential for a modern democracy. As conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently said, online abuse is “designed to intimidate”. If that intimidation is successful, women will be dissuaded from becoming politicians. Already, only 23.3% of politicians worldwide are women.

Abbott has said:

Other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly let alone getting involved in political activity.

The ConversationIf we want to live in a world of true equality, we need to start tackling online abuse. Simply concluding that such abuse is an everyday part of life is clearly a threat to the political system.

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

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