In his recent column, Fintan O’Toole endorsed the advice of Secretary General of the Department of Health, Robert Watt, on how to ‘use’ social media. The advice to his staff was to “practise a wilful obliviousness” on the grounds that it’s necessary to protect one’s mental health from the “hate” that is an inevitable part of having a “public persona”. In short, ignore it.
Such hatred “was, and is, perfectly reasonable” wrote O’Toole, something he said he knew because “when the roles are reversed, I do it myself.”
It’s easy to see where O’Toole and Watt are coming from. Journalists, with their often strongly held opinions, as well as large numbers of followers on social media, are an attractive target for trolls and abuse. They also, depressingly, globally command decreasing levels of public trust (although Ireland still somewhat bucks this trend, at least for now).
Our business - harm speech detection company CaliberAI - recently received a query from a news publisher as to whether we could build tools specifically to help insulate journalists from such abuse.
While the advice to ‘wear blinkers’ may make good sense from a mental health perspective, and hate can never be ‘eliminated’, there is a more productive path out of our broken information ecosystem than passive acceptance of hate as inevitable.
Globally, policymakers are stepping up to the plate on the issue. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, the principal Common Law jurisdictions - Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The United Kingdom and Ireland - as well as the European Union, will all introduce legislation broadly designed to create a “duty of care” for publishers when it hateful or harmful speech.
In Ireland, the recently introduced Criminal Justice (Hate Crime) Bill 2021 will make it an offence, punishable by fine or imprisonment or both, to “display in a public place material which is threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene”, and increase protection on the basis of skin colour, sexual orientation and gender.
Similarly, the EU’s Digital Services Act, expected in 2022, will compel ‘very large online platforms’ (VLOPS) to “identify, analyse and assess...significant systemic risks stemming from the functioning and use made of their services..[INCLUDING] any negative effects...[OR] intentional manipulation of their service...with an actual or foreseeable negative effect on the protection of public health, minors, civic discourse, or actual or foreseeable effects related to electoral processes and public security.”
Even that great bastion of freedom of expression, the United States, has begun to examine how to reconcile the implications of the First Amendment ratified in 1791 with the realities of 2021, when a President of the United States can, at the tap of a button, pretty well incite an insurrection.
‘Wilful obliviousness’ to social media is also not a solution from the perspective of public administration. While the use of social media by poltical leaders has shifted since 2016 or so, from two-way conversations to one-way broadcast, neither the technology underpinning these platforms nor the public’s expectations regarding the scrutiny they facilitate can be put back in the box.
In order to chart a path out of the current dysfunctionality, policymakers must acknowledge how we got here, that social media is here to stay and that it must be made fit for purpose.
O’Toole suggests that he - as a product of pre-internet, “antediluvian” times - received a “foretaste” of what is now “normal”. It is certainly true that journalism has always been a rough and tumble trade, and hate did not start with social media, but there is little comparison to be made between contemporary standards in news media and public discourse, and those that preceded social media.
The stark truth is that many news organisations are shadows of what they were before the advent of social media in the mid noughties. They are under skilled, underpaid and under ever-increasing pressure to chase clicks, produce more content, faster and with little time to fact-check and consider tone or context.
The reason? The flight of advertising revenues, the traditional lifeblood of news, to VLOPS which, in addition to building immensely lucrative ad surveillance networks, have also benefited from the inadvertent creation of a legal lacuna in which liability cannot attach, resulting in their having become the predominant drivers of disinformation, defamation and harm.
A new paradigm will not take root overnight. It took twenty years for data-fuelled, liability-immune internet business models to evolve and erode The Fourth Estate.
Reform will be similarly gradual, and will necessitate strong co-operation between policymakers, technologists and other stakeholders. There is no silver bullet. In the meantime, we must not normalise the unhealthy and abnormal new media dynamic we have come to know in recent times.
Neil Brady is Co-Founder of CaliberAI