Last year (In defence of Social Media, Amazon and the Rest, 6 August, 2018) I wrote in support of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, both of which I use, as does KJM Today, along with a huge number of other organisations and businesses.
Social Media has been in the firing line again recently, specifically Instagram, over the tragic death of 14-year-old Molly Russell. Molly died in November 2017, after committing suicide following her use of Instagram, upon which she viewed images glorifying self-harm and suicide. My thoughts are obviously with Molly’s parents and family members and my heart goes out to them. Any death, regardless of age, is tragic but it is even more so when the victim is so young. That Molly Russell was a victim is beyond doubt. However, rather than simply pinning the blame on Instagram, might it not be a good thing – however unpalatable it may be - to look at all aspects of such tragedy, rather than take the path of least resistance (in this case blaming just social media)? It is only by doing so that we, collectively, might find the right answers.
There is no doubt at all that social media companies must do more to remove harmful content, such as that which promotes terrorism and other abuse, including content that genuinely encourages self-harm. But simply removing such content does not solve the problem. All that happens is similar posts are subsequently made again, both on the same platform and others.
As I wrote last August, although social media platforms must be more pro-active in removing bad content, they must also do more to remove those who post it to begin with. Merely deleting somebody’s account however, is still not the only answer. As long as fake ‘user’ names exist, anybody who has an account removed can simply make up a new name and start again – and they do, all too often. Again as I wrote previously, I use my real name on Facebook, Twitter and here on KJM Today. Why should I not? I have no interest in being gratuitously offensive and no intent to do so either. Undoubtedly there are many who will disagree with what I write and, again once more, anybody who does is welcome to write to KJM Today and say so - provided of course that any comments are made rationally and politely. This, so far at least, has been my experience on Twitter, often a much-maligned social media platform.
Yet how is it that I have been able to have numerous discussions, some quite passionate, with other Twitter users without recourse to plain abuse? Yes, some replies to my tweets have been blunt, occasionally a little rude but I take no offence at that, and there is nothing wrong in replies that are short and to the point.
As I argued last August, Facebook has allowed me to get in touch and stay in touch with former school friends and colleagues of my late Father, BFBS broadcaster Terry James. These are people that I had lost contact with since the peripatetic days of my youth meant being posted to various places at which BFBS maintained a radio and TV station. That lifestyle is something I have in common with many former (and current) members of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, all of whom usually moved from one place to another frequently. I maintain quick and easy contact with many of my colleagues in journalism through the online world, as I do with those who share my interests in aviation and writing generally. The same principle applies to huge numbers of others elsewhere and keeping in contact with friends and family is, again, quick and easy, no matter where in the world they may be.
Yet this is an aspect to social media that is rarely (if ever) covered in mainstream media. Why? The answer of course is that the rise of the online form of media has diluted the readership of traditional print media – you are of course, reading something now that is published online. So online media, both news and social, compete directly with hard-copy print. And very effectively, which is why it is so disliked by its critics.
Simply because one doesn’t like something however, is not a cause for campaigning for it to either be banned completely or have its use severely restricted and there have indeed been calls for both where social media is concerned. So should government intervene and create more new laws? My view is no, it should not. It should not because there are already laws in place that prohibit offensive and harmful material, regardless of where and on what that material appears and the creation of yet more laws telling people what they may not do only leads to more instances of those laws being broken. Unintentionally sometimes and also sometimes not, but it is a fact that the more laws there are, the more likely people are to break them.
What should happen however is that to which I refer above; any new requirement needs to be aimed in the right direction – at those who put harmful content on social media to begin with. That does mean one new requirement and again, as I have already intimated; fake user names have to go. I can think of no reason for having a fake online name, other than to disguise one’s true identity. And because people currently have to ability to do so, those who wish to consequently have the means to promote harm. It is a minority who do, but a significant one.
There is another aspect to social media use, and one that, whilst it has been mentioned, has not been hammered home as forcefully as the call to hold social media platforms to account. It is an aspect that will grate with some undoubtedly, and equally undoubtedly, will cause some to take offence at my saying it – I do not do so with ill-intent however but nevertheless it is something that needs to be the subject of debate.
One of the criticisms, in days long ago now, of television is that it rapidly became the focus of family attention; ‘The Box’ in the corner of the living room replaced conversation between family members and parents came under fire for simply parking their kids in front of one, rather than taking an interest in what they were watching (or doing when they weren’t). That same criticism was then levelled at kids having their own TV in their bedrooms. Today the same comments arise over mobile phone use and, significantly, what young people are looking at via the internet.
My answer is the same for all three aspects; why, as parents, are you not looking at what your children are doing? Look at it another way; would you, as a responsible parent, let your child wander about a busy main road without teaching them that such a road is dangerous? No, you would not. Yet this doesn’t stop children being killed on roads. Would you let your child wander about away from home, as they please, when and where they please? Again no. Yet there are some parents who have no idea where their kids sometimes are, or who they see and associate with. There are children who have never been taught basic life skills by their parents.
Such parents are a minority fortunately but there is still an assumption that simply because kids are at home, they are ‘safe’. From everything. Yet more children are hurt in a genuine accident at home than anywhere else. Falling down the stairs is one example – it happens frequently and happened to me too. Fortuitously I wasn’t badly hurt but my own youthful haste is what the cause was (I was eleven at the time) and despite my parent’s diligence in teaching me about home dangers, I still managed to get it wrong. That is in the nature of childhood and we are all (or were) capable of youthful over-exuberance.
So why let your child have unfettered, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the internet? The internet can be a dangerous place, just as the roads are. The internet has hazards just as leaning out of an upper-floor window has. Just as so many ordinary, everyday aspects of daily life has some danger somewhere, so does the internet.
And one of those dangers, one that we aren’t being aware of, is the danger that if we place more and more restrictions on what we say, read and hear, we are in danger of losing the rights we take for granted in terms of free speech.
In our haste to protect our young, we are in danger of not giving them the skills they need to be aware of danger and to react to it in the right way.
© Kevan James 2019.
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