Social media causes grave damage and must be regulated

Bullying unacceptable at home or in school but fine on social media, writes Chris Johns

Social  media enhances our interactions with fellow human beings but also poses great risks. Photograph: Camelia Dobrin/Ikon Images

Social media enhances our interactions with fellow human beings but also poses great risks. Photograph: Camelia Dobrin/Ikon Images

 

In the United States, about 30,000 people die each year in road incidents. Roughly the same number are killed by guns. We observe these tragedies and wonder about the obsession with a constitutional right to carry assault weapons in handbags.

Here, we legislate to prevent anyone from carrying guns. We believe that there are no benefits to be found in unfettered access to firearms. Our laws keep the number of gun deaths down to about 40 per year. That’s a lot less than the 430 or so fatalities we would expect if we were shooting ourselves as often as the Americans.

We are ambivalent about automobiles. Safety campaigns and tougher drink driving laws have brought the accident statistics down. But with 190 deaths last year there is still a heavy price being paid for our use of cars. We are less draconian with our automobile regulations than we are with guns because of a brutal calculus that sees both costs and benefits from cars. With guns it is easier, as there are only costs.

There are countless similar examples: we smoked for centuries before we realised how bad tobacco is for us. It has taken decades of education, taxes and outright bans to get smoking rates down. But smoking is similar to firearms: both only have costs. We choose to ban one and limit the other, informed by a sense of civil liberties: smokers, when properly quarantined, only pose a danger to themselves.

And we also know something about human behaviour: we could ban alcohol and tobacco but we would only succeed in criminalising popular activities.

Social media has been widely adopted because of the obvious benefits: they are huge. Our interactions with fellow human beings are enhanced, we get more information more quickly and cheaply than before. Like tobacco, social media will one day have to be regulated because of the harm that it does.

Unlike tobacco, there are undoubted pluses so maybe the right comparison is with automobiles. There are existing rules: a report from the Law Reform Commission last week questioned their adequacy and reflected on how we can better protect ourselves on the web. Governments find it all too easy to shelve reports like this.

Rewires our brains

The vile nature of what passes for social commentary is well documented. If it was just about appalling rudeness we should simply be more thick skinned. But there is much more to it than that. We all agree that abuse is bad and should be illegal – apart from, it seems, on social media. Bullying is unacceptable at home, in school and in the workplace but is fine on social media. Social media rewires our brains, shortens attention spans and stunts intellectual development.

A British spy chief recently described WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter as the “command and control centre” for Islamic State. Rent-a-mobs everywhere know exactly what he is talking about.

It is clear that the various platforms are causing harm to children and provide practical assistance to terrorists abroad and ex-terrorists at home. Social media has brought more illness to Ireland than Ebola has. Anarchists, extremists and all-round loonies can find a voice and organisational structure – if only for a decent riot – amidst a political fragmentation that rewards those who shout the loudest.

The gun lobby in the US needs the National Rifle Association (NRA) to fend off those who seek to limit the destruction; social media is its own virtual NRA, its own powerful lobby against which no one is willing to speak. The various platforms only offer minimal assistance to those who seek to limit the damage: these are not enlightened businesses, they risk being seen like the tobacco companies, circa 1960, pretending that smoking does no harm. They should reflect on this.

Social media causes grave damage. Our reluctance to embrace this simple and obvious truth will, one day, be rectified. Google has been forced by lawmakers to permit the right to be forgotten.

There are lots more rights that these companies should uphold. The businesses at the heart of social media can offer the solution, they are the clever ones: they can write the algorithms that can drain the swamp. Social media businesses need not be in confrontation with authority: they are popular for good reason and have the power to minimise the harms that others do. Aside from the ethics of this, it makes perfect business sense to jump before lawmakers seize the agenda.

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