Kathy Errington: Social media regulation is needed to confront hate head-on

The Government must act to regulate social media platforms, writes Kathy Errington, Executive Director of the Helen Clark Foundation.

This article was originally published on the New Zealand Herald.

It took Facebook 29 minutes to respond to the live-streamed assault on innocent worshippers at two Christchurch mosques. As later confirmed by Facebook, the livestreaming of the Christchurch terrorist attack did not trigger its current monitoring mechanisms and it was not until a user alerted Facebook to the video – 29 minutes after livestreaming of the attack started and 12 mins after it ended – that it become aware of the issue. By that point approximately 4,000 people had already viewed the video.

It was then widely shared on Facebook, quickly replicated and shared on other platforms, including YouTube and Twitter and appeared on several news media outlets. Within the first 24 hours of the terrorist attacks, Facebook removed more than 1.5 million uploads of the video. The broadcast by the terrorist was tactical, done in order to spread and encourage white supremacist beliefs, and was full of references to a seething white supremacist internet subculture.  Facebook manifestly failed to stop the video spreading.

New Zealand has changed forever, and we will live with the consequences of March 15 for many years. We need to confront hate head-on, and part of that needs to be a robust public discussion about the role that the Government can play in regulating social media platforms.

We cannot avoid the conclusion that, under our noses, social networks have become incubators of hate.

The first service providers to step up to stop the broadcast of Christchurch footage were not social media platforms, instead it was Internet Service Providers (ISPs). They took the extraordinary step of blocking access to websites that were hosting the video. While I support their decision, it is not a precedent I would want to see repeated.  It was an invidious position that they found themselves in, due to a vacuum of adequate regulation by other authorities. Ad-hoc decisions by some (and not other) ISPs to regulate access to certain websites should be a cause for concern – whilst motivated by the best of intentions, these short-term restrictions are incomplete, arbitrary, and have no democratic input.

The Helen Clark Foundation will release on Monday 13th a report where we propose that a statutory duty of care be imposed on social media companies, as well as for a new social media regulatory agency to be established. Such an agency could draw on the existing models from the Broadcasting Standards Authority and The New Zealand Media Council, which regulate so called ‘mainstream media’, without I would argue any undue impacts on freedom of speech.  Like the Broadcasting Act 1989, legislation could be drafted that contains a set of common standards that all social media companies in New Zealand must abide by and provides powers to the oversight body to adjudicate complaints on alleged breaches of the standards and determine penalties.

Like the BSA, the oversight body’s functions could also include issuing advisory opinions, working with the social media industry to develop codes of practice and conducting research on matters relating to standards in social media. The oversight body could be funded by an industry levy in the same way the BSA is funded. One appointee could be made on the recommendation of public interest groups, and the others made by the relevant (and democratically elected) Minister.

Social media regulation needs a home in government – at the moment at least five agencies have responsibility for pieces of it, including the Privacy Commission, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, Netsafe and Police. Most existing legislation predates social media.

Unfortunately, we can’t trust social media companies to effectively regulate themselves. They are, after all, largely reliant on a huge volume of user-generator content, and often unwilling to make the necessary investment into human moderators to effectively review what they give a platform to. Algorithms that are designed to ensure users to stay on the platform can also create dark echo chambers where harmful content is continually reinforced, but social media companies have become reliant on this business model and are loathe to change. Facebook’s own algorithms may even have ‘accelerated’ the atrocity in Christchurch to some users.

There is also profit in serving advertisements to white supremacists, and other peddlers of hate, and this can lessen the will of executives to tackle the issue. And we cannot expect that pressure from advertisers alone can force companies to clean up their platforms in a meaningful way. The sheer size and importance of a very small number of platforms makes a boycott more difficult – advertisers simply have few other digital platforms to move to.

Even if social media platforms were motivated to regulate discourse, then we still have cause for concern. Internal self-regulation implemented by private companies is beyond the reach of the public – we don’t get to vote on who should be Facebook’s CEO and Board of Directors, much less the regulations on speech that they may apply. The way these internal policies are implemented are usually kept private, and have been applied unevenly in the past.

The rapid pace of technological advancement makes this task even more urgent. Facebook only launched it’s livestreaming service to the public in April 2016, and less than three years later it was used to disseminate a massacre. As the Privacy Commissioner has stated, this was a predictable risk. The proliferation of smartphones, increased speed and coverage of mobile networks, and constant innovation in services will continue to require new responses.

We should never simply leave it to social media companies and ISPs to decide the proper extent of free speech online, otherwise we are handing over far too much control. Simply leaving the policy decisions to social media companies on what speech to regulate will mean that these are all too often inconsistent, opaque, and undemocratic. Greater public input is needed as we work towards a new consensus as to how we can manage the harmful impacts of social media.