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Social Media Regulation Will Protect Democracy

January 9th 2021

Events in America culminating in a violent coup attempt have shocked the world, even though they have been predictable to many for some time now. We have seen a despicable attempt to hold on to power by a narcissistic president who was defeated in an election. Five died violently as a result of events at the US Capitol on 6th January.

Don't say it can't happen here. It already has. MP Jo Cox was murdered by a radicalised terrorist on 16th June 2016.

The question we should all be asking is what we can do to prevent the proliferation of internet cults that lead people into believing extremist lies that lead to violence.

There are a few things we can do now.

The algorithm

It's clear as day that a lot of radicalisation is happening online, in social media spaces, with some platforms being far worse than others.

What may not be clear is how large platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter make it too easy for extremist content to proliferate.

  1. They have systems that prioritise controversial content over truth and safety. In order to get traction, in many cases it's an advantage for users to make incendiary posts that upset people, whether or not they're true. This must stop.

  2. They don't have enough human moderators for the amount of content their users produce.

  3. Their algorithms are skewed towards sending users down topic-based rabbit holes, so that viewing one piece of offbeat content can lead to people being recommended more and more extreme content on a similar theme. This favours those channels and accounts that produce conspiracy theory content without regard to the truth. This must be changed.

The local newspaper gap

The circulation of local newspapers has fallen significantly in recent years. You may wonder what that has to do with the events in America. In my eyes they are very much linked.

This is because local newspapers are, overall, a force for moderation. Local papers tend to create useful and moderate content because they have to please local advertisers and residents, otherwise they won't maintain their sales. They try to reflect their broad readership. So it's rare for a local paper to publish anything too incendiary or partisan, because that would drive away their audience, and they tend to make a virtue of balance and truth.

This is why it's important for local papers to be supported. The Local Democracy Reporting Service, which funds local reporters to report for a range of local papers, is objectively a good thing. It ensures that local politicians at council level can be held to account. In recent years, at least in Louth, the numbers of reporters who are able to cover council business has fallen dramatically, and without the LDRS there simply wouldn't be the coverage and scrutiny of council activity that there is today. It matters.

I'd like to see the government pay to expand this scheme, as a matter of urgency. It's important that any expansion goes to fund organisations that produce balanced, locally-focused news by organisations employing a number of reporters. I'm not advocating for single-author websites (such as this one) to be included in any funding, because even when a site deals with a local topic it can be partisan. What would be beneficial is a focus on standards of truth, serious reporting, and public interest - and that applies as much to business, health and arts reporting as it does to hard news.

We need social media regulation, and we need it now. Our democracy, and the safety of our elected representatives, is at stake if we don't get this right.



 


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