Ofcom can't solve our complicated issues with social media

Beth Robson discusses Ofcom's takeover of social media regulation, and why it won't solve our issues with social media

Beth Robson
17th February 2020
Image Credit: Sara Kurfess, Unsplash

It was announced last week that the government has appointed the role of social media moderation to Ofcom. What ensued was a mixture of welcoming new regulation with the promise of ‘effective protection for people online’, as well as criticism of censoring an otherwise unregulated platform of communication and expression.

My real issue with the Ofcom takeover, is that generally speaking, they don’t seem all that effective when it comes to managing social media reactions in regard to television, nor do they seen to quite grasp the gravitas of social media's effects on mental health. Love Island for example has had thousands of Ofcom complaints about some of the shows near torturous techniques in creating entertaining content. Despite this, Love Island comes back every year with so much as a slap on the wrist, despite former contestants taking their own lives in light of the negativity they received online once leaving the show.

Edit: On the 15th of February, former Love Island presenter Caroline Flack took her own life. There are now calls for a 'Caroline's Law'; a law that holds both traditional and social media responsible for it's content and the adverse effects they have on celebrities mental health.

This can't be fixed by slapping Ofcom red tape over "controversial" views or opinions.

Social media is a much bigger fish to fry than television which goes through strict regulation from the law and can be far more easily moderated; how can you regulate websites which amass millions of posts a day that stand independently from those who run the very platform they’re hosted? Enforcing hefty fines on Big Tech companies can only go so far; what we have here is a sign of a more societal issue, that can’t be fixed by simply just silencing people online and slapping Ofcom red tape over "controversial" views or opinions.

Digital Minister, Matt Warman MP's comments in an interview with 5 News about working with Big Tech's pre-existing flagging tools is also suspect. Let's suppose he's talking about YouTube: the very platform that has be demonetising creators content across the entire political spectrum, but with a particularly odd bias against the LGBTQ+ community. If Ofcom works using this existing system, what does this say about marginalised communities whose narratives don't match that of Ofcoms? What if they're deemed too controversial? Will they too essentially lose their platforms?

This leads to the sinister reality of this takeover; by giving Ofcom control of the social media platforms which up until now have been fairly unregulated, the government are allowing their bias to creep into yet another part of our day to day lives i.e. media consolidation. Whilst Ofcom can remove harmful content, they can in the same breath remove content that they simply don’t agree with. As we’ve seen with large conglomerates such as The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of FOX and their subsequent censorship of ‘The Simpsons’ episode ‘Stark Raving Dad’ from Disney Plus, starring the controversial Michael Jackson, censorship can and does happen when media consolidation takes place.

There's also a real danger in creating an echo chamber where only one view can be heard.

This issue isn’t so black or white, however. I don’t think anyone wants to navigate a platform where there is bigotry that goes unchecked, this is only exemplified with the reactions to Katie Hopkins Twitter account suspension for example, but there’s also a real danger in creating an echo chamber where only one view can be heard. This is one of the risks that we could potentially run into with the Ofcom takeover, and will affect people on both sides of the political spectrum.

With increasing concerns over media censorship, and vigilant protection of the freedom of speech and press, I’m interested in seeing how Ofcom plans to take on such large corporations that’s ethos’ protect the very thing they’re trying to regulate.

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