AN Oireachtas committee is currently examining the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which aims to put manners on how people interact online. It is a sad state of affairs that we have come to this, having to introduce legislation because some members of the public cannot be trusted to be polite, or non-offensive, or even non-defamatory, online.
While some critics may simply suggest that avoiding social media is the solution, for the current and future generations, life is not so simple.
Social media is where, and how, many people interact and, for all its faults, the world would have been a much more disconnected place during the height of the pandemic without it.
But, unlike the print media, the online world has very few regulations or restraints governing how people behave while using it.
And not only can we not trust the people using it, but it seems we cannot trust the owners of the various platforms to police the users, either.
There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence from people who have tried, often unsuccessfully, to have abuse, lies and fake news removed from various sites and platforms. Many of the operators of those same platforms are, ironically, incredibly difficult to contact themselves, when the user has an issue with them.
Hate speech, racism, sexism, Holocaust denial, Covid denial, and various conspiracy theories – in a word, trolling – have been allowed to go unchecked for too long.
And this is how we have found ourselves where we are – relying on our politicians to bring these giant technology firms to heel.
But it must also be remembered that while the social media firms have all too often been found wanting when it comes to regulating abuse, the initial problem is with the public.
Too many people feel empowered to be able to ‘speak their truth’ without any fear of reprisal. Not only that, but they have been further facilitated by the fact that it is all too easy to be anonymous online.
They have also felt legitimised by seeing so many people in positions of power and influence using social media to spread untruths, propaganda and even hatred. No less a person than a former president of the US was allowed to spew fake news for many years, until the bile led to a major breakdown of democracy, culminating in an attack by his supporters on the seat of power itself.
There must be no further delay in regulating these new media behemoths. The numbers are staggering: Facebook had more than 2.7 billion monthly active users in 2020; Twitter has almost 200 million active users; Snapchat has almost 530 million users, and TikTok has 1.1 billion.
The danger is also that if abuse online is allowed go unchecked, the rage and vitriol will spill over into everyday life and this world become an ever more angry place.
Our politicians have proposed an independent monitor to make sure the tech giants – many of them with major bases here in Ireland – do not get to ‘police themselves’ under the new legislation.
Let’s hope they do not lose their nerve in the face of predictable pressure to drop this very important proposal.