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Raymond Snoddy 

Barry the troll and Zuckerberg's virtual world

Barry the troll and Zuckerberg's virtual world

Mark Zuckerberg is apparently going to rebrand Facebook as part of his "Metaverse" vision. Why now, when the company continues to come under fire for not preventing online abuse?

On the face of it, Marianna Spring has one of the best jobs in journalism – the BBC’s first specialist disinformation reporter.

There is no shortage of disinformation, or indeed fake news and mad conspiracy theories. If she has any time to spare after dealing with all of that she could also tackle the disinformation shovelled out routinely by many of our leading politicians.

At the same time, is there any more important role than hunting down the damaging falsehoods that increasingly make any kind of civilised discourse, and even democracy itself, nigh on impossible.

There is however, one big downside to her dream job, as she revealed in this week’s Panorama, the endless stream of online abuse she receives, much of it full of threats complete with references to rape, murder and beheadings.

Spring’s own experience is unfortunately widespread be it politicians or indeed contestants, male and female, in Love Island.

While there is no shortage of online abuse, and it appears to be getting worse, women, whatever their occupation, seem to be on the receiving end of the worst of the most crude sexual and racist vitriol.

The social media companies claim they are tireless in removing hate speech that breaches their rules.

Many, including Marianna Spring, are not so sure. She has reported to Facebook the worst threats she has received, including promises to come to her house and rape her and “commit horrific sexual acts.” 

Despite the complaints, months later, Spring says, the account remains on Facebook along with dozens of other Instagram and Twitter accounts that have sent her abuse.

Unfortunately, none of this is surprising and has been flagged for years.

The most telling part of the Panorama programme however must have embarrassed Facebook and Instagram, to the extent that they are capable of embarrassment while the money continues to roll in.

A male troll called Barry was designed to resemble the sort of people who send Spring abuse. He was unleashed across the five main social media sites.

Barry was hardly an extreme figure, although he was constructed to be interested in anti-vax content, conspiracy theories and also followed a small amount of anti-women accounts with just enough abuse to be picked up by the algorithms.

After a week, the content recommendations from Facebook and Instagram were almost all misogynistic. After two weeks, there was a wide selection of content involving sexual violence, and content condoning rape and harassment. 

Barry was also offered extreme ideologies from the subculture that blames women for the troubles of men.

This would seem to be a case of game, set and match against Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram because it was those two that alone stood out for actually promoting anti-women content to Barry.

Spring found that while YouTube suggested some anti-women content, there was very little on either Twitter or TikTok.

You might think that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg would be redoubling his efforts to do something about these and many previous examples of abuse. 

After all, the latest news comes in the wake of revelations by the whistleblower Frances Haugen, who revealed that internal research had showed that Instagram damaged the mental health of some girls.

And yet, instead of launching a vigorous campaign of reform Zuckerberg is haring off in pursuit of the next new thing, developing a Metaverse.

The Facebook founder is reportedly even preparing to announce a change of brand name for Facebook next week, such is his apparent vision for how fundamental the Metaverse is to the company's future.

Ten thousand highly skilled new jobs are going to be created in the European Union – not in the UK but that’s another story. 

The Metaverse does not yet exist but so far as anybody knows, it is an online world where people can spend their digital lives in a Facebook bubble complete with VR headsets.

If it is not a planned distraction from the woes of Facebook in the real world, then it sounds like a second shot at creating a closed monopoly.

It would be rather better if Zuckerberg were to direct some of his billions into perfecting the existing online world rather than trying to create, potentially, an even more dystopian version of the world he already inhabits.

The brutal murder of Southend MP Sir David Amess has inevitably raised more questions about social media. It was not a case involving online abuse of MPs although many MPs, particularly women are driven to despair by the levels of abuse they receive. 

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, for example, receives tens of thousands of abusive online messages a month.

The link between Sir David and the internet is likely to have been the online radicalisation of the 25-year-old, who is accused of stabbing the Conservative MP 17 times.

According to The Sun, the suspected killer Ali Harhi Ali, was radicalised by watching the YouTube videos of convicted extremist preacher Anjem Choudary.

The Google-owned YouTube took down the videos when Choudary was jailed in 2017 for supporting Islamic State.

It only took Daily Mirror reporters a matter of minutes this week to find 40 hours of video rants by Choudry on Google.

The Amess case could just provide the catalyst for more widespread online reform in the Online Safety Bill.

Hodge says she has changed her mind and now believes that the dangers of online anonymity outweigh the benefits. The Labour MP also believes that the top executives in social media groups should be made legally liable for the content their sites transmit, in the same way that executives are held responsible for corporate tax evasion.

Damian Collins, who chairs the Parliament committee looking into the draft bill, believes that “mounting abuse is a sickness in British political debate that social media is making worse.” 

Neither MPs nor sports stars should not be subject to endless abuse and death threats.

Collins does not think anonymity of social media users should be taken away but that the companies should have enough information on users to be able to identify those who break hate-speech laws to police.

The critics of the social media giants go beyond Spring, Hodge and Collins  and even include the Pope.

“In the name of God, I ask the technology giants to stop exploiting human weakness, people’s vulnerability, for the sake of profits without caring about the spread of hate speech, grooming, fake news, conspiracy theories and political manipulation,” said Pope Francis.

The Pope’s view of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is unknown but is surely unlikely to be encouraging.    

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