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Where good intentions lead

Labour MP Lucy Powell’s Ten Minute Rule Bill to be presented to Parliament today has all of the hallmarks of the good intentions that pave the road that leads to you know where.  At face value, it is packed with banal measures aimed at tackling one of the thorniest issues in publishing today – who, exactly, is the “publisher” of information on social media.

The Bill – which has no chance of becoming law – supposedly aims to clamp down even further on so-called “hate speech” (which is all too often defined entirely subjectively) together with defamation by holding social media group moderators accountable for content.  However, in an interview for the BBC Radio4 Today programme, Powell went much further, claiming her bill would also ban “secret” social media groups and eradicate “fake news.”

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.  Of course, there are online forums such as the Chans, where racist, misogynist or fascist groups are afforded complete freedom to give voice to the most obnoxious views.  There are also instances of the most appalling bullying behaviour by social media mobs which, at worst, has resulted in doxing – disclosing someone’s real name and address; allowing them to be subject to physical intimidation in the real world.  The good intentions behind Powell’s Bill are no doubt aimed in this direction.  The problem is that a great deal of societal good can easily be destroyed in pursuit of these aims.

Almost all of the evils which Powell claims her Bill is needed for are already illegal under existing legislation.  Indeed, the problem is not a lack of law, but often the over-zealous policing of existing measures.  For example, in recent years we have seen people hauled before the courts for such heinous offenses as posting rap lyrics and displaying a doll of a type until recently used to promote a brand of jam in their window.  If such relatively minor offenses can be so easily prosecuted, it is hard to see why new law is required to root out more extreme forms of hate speech.  It is more likely that any failure to apprehend and prosecute is due to the general funding crisis in UK policing.

While few would dispute the sentiments behind Powell’s Bill, the greater harm is likely to result from its unintended consequences were it to become law.  Consider for a moment Powell’s concern with supposedly secret groups.  Clearly, secrecy would allow cabals of racists and misogynists to come together to air their noxious views.  But these groups are not really secret.  The owners of the platforms are aware of them, as are the members of the groups themselves.  And most platforms now operate algorithms that very quickly root out groups promoting hate speech (along with much else besides).  Being based in the USA, most online platforms operate within the terms of the (free speech) First Amendment that far more authoritarian UK politicians often find themselves at odds with.

The generic “secret” groups Powell is attempting to ban are groups whose members’ details are not known or displayed to anyone who is not a member of the group.  Non-members can see that a group exists, but they cannot see who is a member and they cannot read any of the discussion.

I have a confession to make.  I am a member of two such groups; one for people affected by mental health issues, and one for people with the particular genetic disease that my dear departed mother bequeathed to me.  Both groups allow people affected by the same condition to discuss their (often very) personal shared experience of disease, treatment and lifestyle.  If Powell and her supporters had their way, I would be presented with the stark choice between either discussing my personal health issues in public or keeping them to myself – precisely the situation that so many mental health campaigners have fought to overturn over past decades.  The price of allowing a safe space where people with embarrassing and often stigmatised medical conditions may be the temporary (until the algorithms and moderates track them down) existence of online groups whose views most of us would find abhorrent.  But the alternative is far worse.

Powell’s aim to criminalise defamation (it is currently a matter of civil law) is equally misguided.  Certainly there are too many occasions where ordinary people mistake rumour for evidence when posting on social media.  Indeed, even luminaries like Elon Musk do it – although MPs like Powell were unusually silent on that occasion.  However, there are also instances – as with the rumours about Jimmy Savile or Harvey Weinstein – where the airing of potentially libelous information emboldens victims to speak out.  Were Powell and her supporters to have their way, fraudsters, tax evaders, paedophiles and rapists would be empowered to carry on unimpeded; not least because of the depths to which legacy media journalism has sunk in recent years; with few outlets able to afford to pay investigative journalists, and most merely re-writing corporate press releases.

Finally, the fake news that Powell wishes to stamp out may not be fake news at all.  There were, after all, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003; there is no evidence that Russians hacked the 2016 US election or attempted to kill the Skripals; and the few genuine journalists to visit Douma in the wake of the faux chemical attack (and later the international inspectors) found no evidence that such an attack had taken place, but did find credible witnesses who said that it hadn’t occurred.  Were Powell and her allies to have their way, doctors would still be advertising cigarettes, we would be unaware of the link between fossil fuels and climate change, and Thalidomide would be considered to be safe; because you can be sure the tobacco, fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries would be the first to use their wealth and access to top lawyers to use Powell’s anti fake news measures to clamp down hard on any individual or group that even raised a question about whether their products might be harmful.

There is a reason why the most scholarly jurists down the ages fought against attempts to curtail freedom of speech; and it wasn’t to protect the purveyors of hate.  Rather, it was because they were more aware than we are today of the despotic alternatives.  At its best, social media today is akin to the flourishing of ideas published in a plethora of pamphlets in the wake of the English Civil War.  At its most viruous it involves citizen journalists sharing knowledge and information in a way that is holding those who would rule over us to a degree of accountability that would have been impossible in an earlier age.  No doubt – whether consciously or not – MPs like Powell are also uncomfortable when constituents take to social media to raise questions about the expenses they claim or the lobby groups they interact with.  No doubt this, too, plays into their desire for a clamp down on social media.  The alternative, however, is the slippery slope to a despotism in which the wealthy and the powerful are excused the rule of law as it is applied to the rest of us.  And we all know where that particular road leads us.

As you made it to the end…

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