The push for online regulation risks absolving the right of responsibility for the toxicity they continually stoke
Last modified on Sun 24 Oct 2021 18.34 BST
Every time a dramatic, unforeseen political event happens, there follows a left-field fixation that some out-of-control technology created it. Whenever this fear about big tech comes around we are told that something new, even more toxic, has infiltrated our public discourse, triggering hatred towards politicians and public figures, conspiracy theories about Covid and even major political events like Brexit. The concern over anonymity online becomes a particular worry – as if ending it will somehow, like throwing a blanket at a raging house fire, subdue our fevered state.
You may remember that during the summer’s onslaught of racist abuse towards black players in the England football team, instead of reckoning with the fact that racism still haunts this country, we busied ourselves with bluster about how “cowards” online would be silenced if we only just demanded they identify themselves.
We resort to this explanation, that shadowy social media somehow stimulate our worst impulses, despite there being little evidence that most abuse is from unidentifiable sources. After England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final, Twitter revealed that 99% of the abuse on its site directed at England footballers was not anonymous.
The same arguments were made in the aftermath of MP David Amess’s killing – that doing something about online abuse would make politicians safer. It was a rehash of a 2018 moment when Theresa May pledged to regulate online behaviour because a “tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate”.
Good old social media, always there to paper over the giant cracks of our political failures. Bad tech is a convenient fall guy for a whole gang of perpetrators. It has been particularly useful in recent years, when Brexit has enabled rightwing politicians and press to engage in the most divisive, dangerous rhetoric, particularly towards the country’s political and legal institutions, then point to social media when that rhetoric serves its purpose of eroding tolerance and trust.
But when parliament and the supreme court – attacked by the media and politicians for variously being saboteurs, traitors and opponents of the will of the people – come under fire from members of the public, that is an entirely different matter. The faceless public becomes the only protagonist. This allows everyone, from the mainstream press to publishers of far-right conspiracy theories, to distance themselves from the scene of the crime and innocently propose earnest-sounding solutions to our country’s crises of racism and loss of faith in our politics.
The corrupting influence of technology companies is also a compelling explanation for them because it means that something can be done. This is partly down to a sort of dominant liberal technocratic sensibility that reaches for a tool kit to fix social and political problems, as one would approach a broken machine. The result is “solutionism”, the belief there is a technological remedy for most issues, because human behaviour is essentially rational and can be mapped out, analysed and then adjusted.
It’s all so much easier than squaring up to the gnarly facts that the world is messy; humans are infinitely suggestible and manipulable; and most of the time our political behaviour is a manifestation of long-term currents spread by political parties and dominant economic ideologies. This reluctance to trace how we arrived at a place we don’t like was clearly demonstrated by the stubbornness with which so many people held to the belief that Brexit was an aberration. Not acknowledging that it was, in fact, a culmination of a campaign that lasted years, and the result of our failed economic model and of decades of anti-immigration obsession. Someone must have cheated, these people told themselves, so a sort of tech calamity thesis carried the day. And the perfect culprit presented itself in the form of Cambridge Analytica and a convenient cartoon cast including shady Russian powers, Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings.
The right, too, loves a tech panic to explain away unhappy results. Tech growing faster than it can be controlled and then turning on its creators is a universal bogeyman, a nervousness captured in Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics in 1942: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
When companies reach the scale and reach of Facebook, they can appear, to the right, a little too much like big governments infringing on individual privacy and freedoms. This fear is then easily capitalised on, and all sorts of unlikely victims can claim they are silenced by platforms biased against their politics. When Donald Trump intends to launch a new social media network to “stand up to the tyranny of big tech”, he is echoing the whine of many across the political spectrum. Those who, rather than admit their thinking is less popular than they would like, prefer to believe they are simply conspired against.
Social media companies do regularly fail in their responsibilities to manage the kind of hate speech and abuse that poses a danger for everyone from vulnerable children to ethnic minorities and members of parliament. It is clear that the management of harmful content online cannot be left to tech platforms themselves and that some form of regulation is now long overdue. One hopes the current UK online safety bill will now address that.
But fixating solely on reforming big tech risks turning into a huge displacement exercise. While we rightly focus on the excesses of tech platforms that have turned abuse and lies into lucre, we must also realise that the bad robot theory is tempting because it places the problem not only outside of our institutions, but outside of our very selves. There are other anonymous players who need to be named in this crisis of discord – those parties in our politics and our media who have created so much discontent and hostility that it all regularly overflows in the sewers of social media.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist