Last weekend a fascist terrorist opened fire in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people and injuring three others. Following the modus operandi of numerous previous terrorists, the killer livestreamed the attack online and published a manifesto.
Twitch, the Amazon-owned platform used by the killer to broadcast his murderous rampage, took down the broadcast within minutes, though copies were quickly made and spread across other social media platforms. Similarly, the killer’s racist manifesto was irresponsibly shared widely.
As is regularly the case after these events, major tech platforms are once again facing questions about their readiness and effectiveness in reducing the spread of such harmful content. In the face of years of failings and broken promises by the tech industry, a consensus has emerged that the time for serious regulation of the online space is overdue.
In the UK, the Online Safety bill is currently passing through parliament, a welcome though imperfect piece of legislation being lauded by the government as “world-leading,” with claims that it will make the UK the “safest place in the world” to go online.
While it is essential that any legislation protects freedom of speech and our free media, a number of poorly thought-out exemptions, which are theoretically designed to protect journalists, risk severely undermining the effectiveness of the whole bill and could even have the opposite result of its intended purpose.
Exemptions For News Publishers
At present, the bill includes a “media exemption” that means social media platforms are exempt from having to take any action around safety duties relating to news publishers’ content. The current criteria, as set out in the bill, of what qualifies as a legitimate news publisher is arbitrary and, worryingly, is also strikingly easy to meet.
At present, state-run purveyors of propaganda and misinformation such as the Kremlin-backed Russia Today or Iran’s Press TV would qualify for the exemption. Even explicitly far-right media outlets like Tommy Robinson’s Urban Scoop, Alex Jones’ Infowars, Rebel Media or Breitbart News could qualify with just a few alterations to meet the criteria. If this were to happen, the Online Safety bill could paradoxically increase the prevalence of harmful content rather than reduce it.
However, things could be set to get even worse. Speaking on ITV’s This Morning, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary responsible for this bill, said, “What this bill does, if those platforms remove something which a journalist or a news outlet puts online, they have to notify that journalist that they’re about to remove that content, they have to say why they’re going to remove it, and they have to give the journalist the right to appeal, and the content remains online while that happens.”
As with the attack in Buffalo, the Christchurch Mosque shooter also live-streamed his attack and published a manifesto. In a move of staggering irresponsibility, The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror both published edited versions of the video of the massacre on their own websites, while the Mail went as far to make the whole manifesto available to download. If Nadine Dorries gets her way, social media platforms will be in the unconscionable position of not being able to quickly take down links to download a terrorist manifesto or a video of Muslims being murdered because they have been published by a recognised news outlet.
Exemption for Journalistic Content
The bill also includes an ill-defined exemption for “journalistic content” – content “generated for the purposes of journalism” – which affords an expedited complaints procedure for journalists.
This is especially troubling as numerous high-profile far-right figures, including the notorious Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), self-define as journalists. There is a very real chance that far-right extremists who are currently deplatformed from major social media sites will seek to exploit this exemption to regain their presence online.
However, content deemed to be “journalism” shouldn’t be afforded additional protections to content produced by everyone else. The OSB already has a raft of robust protections to ensure free speech for everyone, so why do people with a press card need more protection than people without?
Many will remember Katie Hopkins’ article in The Sun which branded migrants as “cockroaches” that spread “like norovirus on a cruise ship” or when Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, suggested extremists should blow themselves up in London’s Tower Hamlets away “from where the rest of us live”.
There was a time when you had to stand at a far-right demonstration in a rainy car park to hear speeches about a supposed migrant invasion of Europe designed to replace the “indigenous” population of the West. Now you can watch clips of Fox News host Tucker Carlson spreading the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory shared on social media. The racist conspiracy theory that inspired the Buffalo shooter should not be protected on social media simply because it is espoused by a “journalist” like Carlson.
There is also the issue of what happens when far-right figures, banned by social media platforms, are given airtime by mainstream publications and broadcasters. Last year talkRadio tweeted a clip of the far-right “migrant hunter” Steve Laws, while GB News platformed the anti-vaxxer Mike Yeadon.
A charitable view is that these exemptions are well meaning but naïve. They rely on the comforting but incorrect assumption that prejudice and discrimination are confined to the margins of our society, and that hateful content is only produced and disseminated by “extremists” or the far-right. In reality, harmful content seen on social media comes from a range of sources ranging from far-right extremists through to mainstream journalists via established news publishers.
It is essential that any regulation of the online space adequately protects freedom of expression and our free press, but these poorly considered exemptions will severely undermine the effectiveness of legislation that is a once in a lifetime chance to make the internet a safer, less harmful and more diverse space for all of us.
Racism is racism whoever espouses it and content should be judged on its likelihood to cause harm online, not by who created it.