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Kate Hawkesby: Regulation and accountability of social media trolls needed

Author
Kate Hawkesby,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 7 February 2018, 7:11AM
Ms May claims public debate has become more coarse and embittered, with the worst excesses found online. (Photo \ Getty Images)
Ms May claims public debate has become more coarse and embittered, with the worst excesses found online. (Photo \ Getty Images)

It's hard not to agree with British PM Teresa May who's warned that social media giants are ‘allowing intimidation and aggression to run riot online’.

Ms May claims public debate has become more coarse and embittered, with the worst excesses found online.

Certainly, anyone targeted by trolls and vitriolic comments can attest to that.

Cowardly keyboard warriors ensconced in the safety of dank basements are certainly good at lobbing abusive verbal grenades, seemingly without regard for the consequences. But a new breed of troll exists now.

What once were faceless losers with nothing better to do, has morphed into the inclusion of intellectuals and academics, who feel it’s their ‘duty’ to name and shame, to point and waggle their virtuous finger.

They consider themselves so above the hoi polloi, that they justify their sanctimonious online hate as ‘helping to inform’ or ‘start a conversation’.

Conversation? Really? Feels like a pious lecture from a lonely pedestal, awaiting a fervour of fellow users to pile-on for the ultimate online gangbang.

The proliferation of shaming language, bullying and hateful comments has become something we now accept ‘comes with the territory’. But does that mean we should put up with it?

I‘ve learnt first hand over the past couple of weeks that expressing views is not for the faint-hearted.

Where people used to disagree with you, now they demean you as well.
The two shouldn't go hand in hand.

Perversely, it means these platforms designed to give everyone a voice, instead create a chilling effect. Those voices who might be most valid, minorities we need to participate in the discourse the greatest, won’t, because they either can’t tolerate or won’t tolerate, the shame and abuse that comes with it.

But how much of that is the social media sites fault?
It’s certainly something Facebook’s wrestling with, parents too, and schools.

An Auckland Primary school last week announced a social media ban but you try telling a 13-year-old with Instagram that she really shouldn’t be on that.

Banning stuff rarely works. Case and point is the research out today showing a third of High School students in this country are bypassing school internet filters.The horse has bolted.

But here’s where Theresa May might be onto something, regulation and accountability could be a good start.
She wants an annual transparency report to expose the worst firms at tackling the problem. Official data will be published on how much harmful content is reported, removed and how quickly.
May also wants a social media code of practice, to make social media a force for good. I hope we see a time where that’s possible.

Ultimately though, the people most accountable for these actions, are the users themselves.
You can’t regulate stupidity and you can’t regulate nastiness; especially if the peddlers of it believe their own trash talk as fact.

So while I hope Theresa May’s regulations have a trickle-down effect on all toxic online discourse. I also accept that we each need to play our part.