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Opinion: Online abuse needs to be stopped, but let's not shut down open debate in the process

Adam Hallissey says it’s clear that political discource online is broken, but attempts to change things drastically may backfire.

Adam Hallissey

THERE IS A classic scene in the masterful British political sitcom ‘Yes Minister’ that sees two civil servants, in the midst of a conversation, talk about how “something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it”.

It is the type of logical fallacy that leads politicians to identify undesirable levels of alcoholism and think, therefore, we must simply increase the prices of cheap beers and, just like that, all shall be fixed.

Similarly, nobody wants to admit that many of the universally agreed upon solutions currently being proposed to combat abuse and political divisiveness online also fall into this trap.

The topicality of discussions surrounding how the recent rise in coarsened online political discourse can best be counteracted seems to increase with each passing day.

Most political commentators, as well as those with a mere passing interest in following the goings-on of the different parties, representatives and journalists online, agree that, as things stand, the levels of abuse, misinformation and divisiveness on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter continue to escalate and are becoming intolerable.

What to do?

Unusually, it seems as though there is general agreement across the political spectrum as to how these worsening phenomena should be tackled. Social media platforms should make it compulsory for each user to verify their identity to establish an account, more of an effort should be made to fact-check articles and flag untrustworthy sources, and a greater level of monitoring of abusive content should exist, according to many.

And while all of these proposals seem vaguely agreeable, the truth is that buying into them and focusing too much of our efforts to make social media a more constructive place on them will likely end poorly.

In Ireland, a progressing Bill aimed at addressing harmful online content has been dubbed as vague, arbitrary and poorly defined by representatives from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Digital Rights Ireland and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission who appeared before the Oireachtas’ media commission last month.

In Europe, the Digital Services Act, which was submitted to the European Parliament and the European Council in December last year, also promises the introduction of additional regulatory oversights pertaining to individuals’ online interactions. But how agreeable really are the commonly accepted ideas as to how we should make social media a better place to engage with one another on important topics and how effective would they prove in practice?

Take, for example, the idea of mass attaching articles or notices which fact-check to pieces of misinformation on social media. A recent study by researchers from the University of Exeter and MIT Sloan in Massachusetts found that when those perpetuating false information were corrected by polite, evidence-based content the consequences were almost exclusively negative: “After a user was corrected, they retweeted news that was significantly lower in quality and higher in partisan slant, and their retweets contained more toxic language”.

Many users tribally place their pre-held beliefs over the facts of any given situation and a notice flagging a piece of fake news as misinformation may do little to change this.

Even more common than calls for social media platforms to very visibly flag false information through one method or another is for such companies to require users to verify their identity before being allowed to set up an account. The current army of online trolls, the claim goes, would soon dissipate if their actual names were attached to their malevolent tripe.

But many of us remain unconvinced. For one thing, there is evidently a large number of online users perfectly willing to engage in radical and harmful political content with no sort of anonymity.

Furthermore, removing the existence of most accounts which choose not to use their actual name and an actual picture of their real person would also result in the removal of many good accounts that do incredible work which would otherwise be impossible. It is the unfortunate case that we don’t hear often enough about the progress achieved internationally through online whistleblowing conducted by anonymous Twitter accounts in particular.

A complex issue

The truth is that, not unlike a vast swathe of issues surrounding legislative proposals, while the solutions to the exacerbation of abuse, fake news, clickbait and misinformation online may seem obvious, the complexities that we ignore are where the answers probably actually lie.

If the issues at hand were actually simple, the block button would have solved them years ago. At the issue’s essence is that the array of reactive tools proposed to clean up online political discourse will be inherently useless unless a far more fundamental shift in mindset and culture occurs.

You cannot force people to be respectful, you cannot force them to engage in an honest and constructive manner and you certainly cannot persuade them to exclusively consume content which is factual and objective, no matter how hard you may try.

The risks of online abuse to individuals and social cohesion are obvious, but the risks of messing up legislation which would hand so much power to social media companies and regulators do not receive the attention they warrant. Do we really want to allow Twitter to force us to provide a form of ID before joining the platform?

Social media so clearly holds the capacity to positively revolutionise politics. It can decentralise political power, it allows us to hold politicians and civil servants to account, it allows our political representatives to talk to voters more directly and it gives a voice to issues and peoples that would otherwise be kept silent.

Pointing this potential out to social media users through educational campaigns could see platforms being viewed through a different prism – one which results in far more desirable outcomes. There will always be ideologues online, there will always be radical users and groups who will manipulate social media to further their own nefarious agendas. But many people with underlying common sense may react far better to less hands-on proposals than those which are being put forward by various Irish politicians at present.

Perhaps reminding people that social media was not destined to turn out this way and did not have to become a political cesspit would be more productive than forcing regulations upon them.

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You do not have to be your typical ‘freedom-lover’ to believe that, as a general principle, providing citizens with information and education about positive possibilities is preferable to treating them as inept and enforcing restrictions on their ability to do things that are taken for granted. It appears as though how we are going to tackle online hate speech and misinformation may be one of such cases.

One thing, however, is for sure – another botched attempt of “something must be done, this is something, therefore we should do it” with passive political acceptance and without the necessary rigorous debate would prove disastrous.

This is all not to say we should do nothing about the horrors of serious online abuse, but we should certainly think twice before committing to proposals as stark as those that are currently being put forward and not being sufficiently inspected.

Adam Hallissey is News Editor at Newsline and former Editor in Chief at The Progressive Brief.

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