by Paul Ince – CEO, LikeMind Media (@BizPaul)

In the end, government regulates whatever the creators or society cannot. When the overriding sense is that something is failing to protect citizens, any governing body cannot risk the damage to its own good standing by sitting idly by and not doing anything while people are being damaged.

That’s what is happening today with social media.

As a huge fan of social media – it’s what essentially has given me the freedom to have my own business – it’s a tough position to find oneself in; advocating regulation of platforms that I love to use, and that have brought me joy. But I cannot get over some of the events that are happening to users and the seeming unwillingness to help from the creators of social media themselves.

Molly Russell
Molly Russell, whose father believes that Instagram contributed to his daughter’s death.

Once upon a time, there was no regulation of the press. Because there was no such thing as the press. There was no regulation of broadcasting, because there was no radio or television. You can’t regulate something that doesn’t exist. Once it does, and it becomes mainstream, people are looking for how it contributes to society.

Is the potential for harm enough reason to regulate?

Tobacco products are regulated because they kill. Alcohol is regulated because it can be damaging. Food is regulated because some types of food are bad for our health. Playing Grand Theft Auto is regulated because it’s violent and, arguably, children shouldn’t pretend to shoot and rob people.

Generally speaking, society doesn’t argue with this as we recognise the potential for harm. We’re only just realising the potential for harm that social media can bring.

This is not a call to ban social media. I maintain that social media can be a force for good. You can find your tribe on social media in a way that you could not before. If you feel isolated because no one but you likes a certain thing, you can guarantee that you will find others who share your passion, and loneliness, on social. True friendships can be made on social media – indeed, some of my best friendships have formed from there.

But it can be a dark place too. If you’re feeling low, suicidal even, you can, of course, equally find your tribe on social media. Sometimes, that tribe is encouraging in the wrong direction.

What is to be done?

It seems to me that the platforms themselves are not able to respond quickly enough to what is happening on the channels they have created. I’ve come to the conclusion that the executives running the companies are either not listening, have so much money that they have become detached from the real world, or simply are not mature enough to comprehend that they are no longer a tech startup and have responsibilities.

They are playing catch up with society too. However, now is the time to act, and if they cannot, then society or government must.

When I’ve posed my thoughts to others, I am asked ‘what’s the solution?’ A fair question. So, what am I advocating?

It strikes me that the closest regulation we already have is press and media regulation and that this is a fair comparison.

  • No one is prevented from buying a newspaper
  • No one is prevented from watching a TV station, even after the 9pm watershed
  • The press has freedom of expression, but is censured when it oversteps the mark or breaks the law
  • Newspapers, magazines, radio and television are publishers of content

It is no longer acceptable, in my view, for the social media companies to say they are platforms and not publishers. They have control over what goes on their platforms – actually in a way that could result (and does, because of algorithms) in less freedom of expression.

Yes, we as users are the publishers, but it is not realistic to educate millions of people into existing law, even if that is what can actually be applied. This is a new world, a situation we find ourselves in that we haven’t been in before.

Regulation can be light touch. It can give us the freedoms we want but offer guidance and prevent harm. Social media has given, and continues to give us, so much and I hope that doesn’t change. It continues to push boundaries, and I hope that doesn’t change either. But, the greater good of society is more important than the companies that create the platforms we love and I’m prepared to accept some rules that I stick to if it means we are better at ridding ourselves of some of the harm that others’ content is doing to our citizens.