There’s Not a Lot to Like in the Government’s New Web White Paper

This front-page headline from the Times last week saw the futility of current proposals for social media regulation writ large.  


The ensuing story covers a recommendation from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to ban use of the 'like' function by under-18s on platforms like Instagram - seen to be a nudge device that keeps kids glued to their screens for longer. 

It follows the launch of the Government's Online Harms White Paper earlier this month.

The raft of proposals contained within include committing social media companies to a duty of care, enforced by an independent regulator, new codes of practice regarding the removal of illegal content, and transparency around algorithms that push users towards certain types of content.  

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the Telegraph - no doubt driven by concern for young people and not the challenge posed by free online content to newspapers - has long been campaigning for greater regulation of social media enterprises. On the day of the white paper's launch, it was swift to laud its efforts to end the scourge of misbehaving online. 

The social media environment can certainly be violent, putrid and hateful. It is equally vast, complex and rapidly-changing. What should be a force for good - enabling the rapid mobilisation of well-intentioned people and inspiring ideas - has in large part become the opposite.   

But by seeking to regulate away the malign forces at work on social platforms, the Government's emphasis is fundamentally misplaced. Behaviour change, not demonisation of social media firms, is the key here. It's the users that should feel a duty of care when engaging with others. 

In fairness, the Government does address user-empowerment in its White Paper. Reflections on the subject are essentially a footnote though: occupying points 46 to 48 of 49 headline clauses. In reality, it should be occupying the top spots. 

Many are pushing for this alternative approach. A recent in-depth study from PA Consulting states that - while regulation of easily-accessible platforms has its place - "the sophistication of the threat… calls for a re-think". 

It proposes the creation of an Online Harms Safety Centre (OHSC) which would coordinate targeted activity, focussing on behaviour change and disruption of the dark web.    

Such voices must be heard. It’s high time for media education to become routine from an early age in schools. Young people need to both fully understand the agendas of different news outlets and appreciate that one wrong move on social media can seriously impact life chances. 

Imbuing young people with some basic principles for online engagement (don't say anything on the web that you wouldn't say in-person, for example) would do wonders for efforts to end the keyboard warrior phenomenon. 

Kids also need to be encouraged to resist the negative, narcissistic aspects of social media. A series of immaculate selfies on an Insta profile do not reflect the harsh realities of existence that we all have to face together.  

We need prominent reminders of the damage that social media does to mental health, perhaps with an initiative akin to the 'Bet Regret' campaign. 

The Government proposals also leave a lot of questions unanswered, not least whether genuine news websites with a user-generated aspect could be caught up in the clampdown. The implications for private interactions on platforms like WhatsApp are left ambiguous.      

Of course this white paper could end up being a damp squib – nothing more than grandstanding by an ambitious Home Secretary looking to be on the right side of a newspaper beloved by the Conservative faithful.

Still, though, it’s the whole premise of the Government’s approach that should get a thumbs down. Changing online habits, not ramping-up regulation, is the key to making social media a true force for good in society.

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