Social media needs radical reform
As advertiser money continues to flow towards increasingly toxic platforms, Raymond Snoddy wonders what it will take to see proper and ethical reform
We have heard all the usual people saying the expected things over the suicide of Molly Russell and the role of Pinterest and Facebook-owned Instagram.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the former Culture Secretary, warned that it could all lead to heavy fines and even bans if the social media giants did not take meaningful action.
"If we think (the social media companies) need to do things they are refusing to do. Then we can and we must legislate," Hancock fearlessly told the Andrew Marr Show.
Far too many ifs and buts hanging around in the air there, a bit like the media equivalent of sending Prime Minister Theresa May to Brussels to demand the removal of the Irish backstop – or else.
Then we had Facebook executive Steve Hatch saying he was “deeply sorry” before saying: “We’d have to make sure that we look at these and ensure that those are taken down if they are against our policies.”
You could devote a couple of thousands words to the linguistic analysis of the conditional nature of that single sentence.
Facebook must fear their relationship with the late Molly Russell is not going well because it then wheeled out an even bigger gun, the former UK deputy Prime Minister Sir Nick Clegg to dispense a few very well-paid for words.
The vice-president of global affairs at Facebook said the company had been a force for good and had helped many troubled children and could have even prevented thousands of suicides.
The BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan was having none of it and showed the former leader of the Liberal Democrats images of slit wrists, smeared blood and a girl holding a teddy bear saying the world was so cruel that she didn’t want to see it any more.
Asked if he would allow his own children to see such images he replied: “Of course not.”
Damian Collins, who chairs the Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee, was markedly less conditional when he accused Sir Nick of swallowing the Facebook Kool-aid.
It was the same tactic as social media executives habitually deploy, apologise when caught out, promise to do better in future and then hope nobody notices when nothing much changes.
“We have reached a point where we cannot just rely on the goodwill of companies like Facebook to police their own platforms properly or even enforce their own rules,” Collins argued.
It is time for the likes of Matt Hancock to get off his ifs and buts and abandon the conditional tense and actually do something.
If he is still in doubt, he might have another look at the recent work of the Sunday Times, which found that 30 families believe the California technology companies were implicated in the suicides of their children.
The paper revealed that on the Pinterest social media site, which reaches more than 250 million users, children as young as 13 could see blood spattered arms and pictures of a teenage girl hanging.
A month after Molly Russell died Pinterest still sent a personalised message to her email address with self-harm images that included a slashed thigh.
In a fine piece of reporting the Sunday Times set up a fake Pinterest account in the name of a 14-year-old girl and quickly received material relating to suicide and images of blood and cuts.
Soon after Instagram had expressed regret about Molly’s death the paper complained about 20 questionable images on its site, all were deemed suitable for girls of 13.
So now it’s time to hand over to the politicians. They will be found wanting if they fail to persuade the social media giants to accept the need for radical reform and then do nothing themselves.
But one aspect of the anti-social aspects of the social media whether it’s hate speech, terrorism, paedophilia, political manipulation, self-harm or the encouragement of suicide has not received nearly enough attention – the role of the advertising and marketing community.
It was put best of all by the 84-year old Senator for Utah, Orrin Hatch, who asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year how come they could run a service that was free to users.
“Senator we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied.
Without ads Zuckerberg would not be a multi-billionaire. Without ads neither Instagram now Pinterest would exist.
Let’s not beat about the bush and name some guilty companies and their media advisers however inadvertently guilty.
The BBC has found that advertisers whose ads appear associated with suicide content include Marks & Spencer, The Post Office, footwear group Dune and perhaps most unbelievable of all – a health charity, the British Heart Foundation.
Naturally all were shocked, saddened and surprised to find their ads in such company.
But apart from PR guff about how important brand safely is to them, there is little sign of them actually doing anything about it – such as pulling ads from the sites responsible.
The stern action from M&S seems to go little beyond seeking “additional assurances” that Instagram will rid itself of “inappropriate content.”
The Post Office, in an even more limp response, says it would welcome working with media platforms to tackle the issue.
Presumably as the social media groups rid themselves, or tackle inappropriate content – something they have singularly failed to do in the past – really respectable companies will continue to pump out the ads and make the billionaires even richer.
The advertising body ISBA has put its finger on the problem by explaining that: “today advertising in the news feed is targeted to the individual and there is no control over what else appears with it.”
That may indeed be so, but that does not absolve advertisers of responsibility for where and how they chose to place their ads.
ISBA goes on to argue that this leaves the poor advertiser reliant on Facebook and Instagram’s moderation policies and the effectiveness of that moderation.
“The self-moderation of content by individual companies continues to be a serious part of the problem,” says ISBA with a large dose of understatement.
So if the likes of M&S, Dune and the Post Office won’t pull their ads to avoid the danger of ending up in place where they have no business to be, then the least they can do is support ISBA’s push to create a new independent, industry-funded body to try to deal with the problem.
It would set ethical principles, certify content policies and processes, audit transparency reporting and provide an appeals process.
While the wait continues for politicians to actually do something, this is the very least that the advertising and marketing industries should be doing rather than standing by wringing their hands about self-harm and suicides rubbing shoulders with their ads.