Social Media is swamping us, and we are going under by the sheer weight of it all. I don’t claim to be familiar with even the half of it, but by all accounts, Facebook, hosted by a strange, totally anonymous and obscenely rich American, bears much of the responsibility for media intrusion, as he was the first geek on the block. Since then, he has been joined by several others, including Twitter for the boring and self-opinionated, YouTube for the wannabies and Instagram for photos and videos.
Attention has recently been drawn to these social media sites by Donald Trump, the leader of the free world, who uses Twitter to connect with Twits the world over, it’s called connecting with kindred spirits, and Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who, according to her father, committed suicide after viewing self-harm content on Instagram. His plight has touched a raw nerve, and Molly’s tragic death highlights the real dangers of getting swamped by social media.
Into this frenetic debate steps Mrs. Jackie Doyle-Price MP, who is the minister for mental health and suicide prevention. Wow! Hands up who has ever heard of her and her ministry. It sounds like complete nonsense to me, but her aims may be perfectly laudable if unattainable. She proposes to tackle social media executives and hold them personally liable if content on their platforms is harmful to children and vulnerable people. She goes on: “Nothing is off the table. We could use fines, we could make social media companies much more responsible and apply the full force of the law if we feel they are being negligent in their duty of care to their users.” All well and good, but a fine won’t bring back a child, and it may be worth remembering that Facebook generated over $40 billion in 2017. A fine is meaningless.
The lawyer in me would tell her that the burden of proof to prove negligence is nigh on impossible to discharge, even if these social media companies would be willing to engage with the well-meaning minister in the first place, which they would not. And how do you prove criminal negligence when it is obvious that one man’s meat is another man’s poison? It’s all in the eye of the beholder, with many shades of grey, and it’s far from black and white.
And finally, if you are making negligence a criminal offence, how do you prove cause and effect? The problem with Molly was that she was adversely and tragically affected by what she saw, but by the same token, I suspect there are thousands of others watching the same material who are not adversely and tragically affected in the same way. This means you cannot make it an absolute offence, which makes it pointless.
With respect to Ms. Doyle-Price, this is ministerial posturing, and other than grabbing headlines for a day, it is wishful thinking. Far better to abolish all social media platforms that do not comply with common decency, otherwise we really do risk going to hell in a handcart. God help us all, but don’t hold your breath.