As I See It

Privacy and decency put social media in the dock

Terry smiling headWith impeccable timing the imminent implementation of the new general data protection regulation (GDPR) has coincided with one of the biggest breaches of privacy for a generation.

It has brought into close focus a growing crisis of confidence in the still young, energetic and ubiquitous social media industry. It has mesmerised, fascinated and now angered its worldwide users who, like any addicts, know it may be bad for them, but cannot kick the habit.

The scandal surrounding the misuse of personal information on 50 million individuals  – equal to the population of the UK excluding London – has brought the data mining firm Cambridge Analytica and the social network Facebook into disrepute.

Not only has it damaged the promising career of Alexander Nix, who has been suspended from his position as CEO of Cambridge Analytica, it wiped $50 billion from the stock market value of Facebook as investors fretted about the impact on Facebook’s mid-term prospects. More to the point, they’re worried that the scandal may be enough to persuade millions of fickle users to unfriend the phenomenon.

For those finger-wagging social media naysayers who have warned that it would all end in tears, this is their moment to nod sagely and watch the offending parties make their barely-credible excuses.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and multi-billionaire, has learned at least two harsh lessons: never believe your own hype, and that what goes up sure as hell can come crashing down.

He has now emerged from semi-hibernation to tell his customers (a.k.a. half the planet’s population): “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”

According to Mr Zuckerberg, it all went wrong when data accessed by a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan got into the hands of Cambridge Analytica against Facebook’s policies.

It may have remained a relatively low key affair, or at least not quite the global scandal it has become, had the information not been linked to Donald Trump’s election campaign.

There are now claims of legal actions being filed and Mr Zuckerberg is being called to answer for his company before high-ranking politicians. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, and this could be worse.

While Facebook feels the heat, its fellow social media platform Twitter is also having to defend itself against accusations of failing to protect individuals – mainly women – from a torrent of abuse.

Kezia DugdaleScottish female MSPs, including Kezia Dugdale (right), have joined a Toxic Twitter campaign led by the human rights organisation Amnesty International aimed at cutting out this cancerous behaviour, though the battle is against an aspect of human nature that we may not like, but cannot cure.

Social media is in the dock and arguably, the charges facing Twitter are the more difficult of the two to resolve. Abuse is one thing, but the right to be offensive or contentious is enshrined in free speech and there will be an army of folk queuing up to defend their right to say what they like.

The use of forthright language and opinions on social media is not dissimilar to a soap box orator, or even a stand-up comedian, who chooses language and comments that some deem offensive. So long as they are not racist, homophobic, or encourage hatred and violence toward anyone they would probably be given the full protection of the law to carry on.

This is the finest of fine lines, but “offensive” language is all around us. More people, even children, pepper their everyday language with swear words that would not have been acceptable a generation ago. Television programmes are regularly prefaced by the continuity announcer as containing “strong” (ie.”foul”) language. How long before such language creeps into tea-time soap operas?

Offensive language and abusive behaviour routinely features in mainstream movies – which law-abiding people willingly pay to see and hear – and on the internet, not least among our media organisations. Those in the media calling for tighter controls on Twitter should first look at the expletive-laden comments left on their own websites, many of which would never be passed for publication in their newspapers. Some independent websites, unwilling to devote resources to policing such behaviour, have stopped accepting comments altogether.

As with the banks and other industries, the regulators now turning their attention to tackling this issue are trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted.

That’s not to say they should simply give up on any attempt to introduce measures that would temper the current free-for-all.

Even at risk of some curbs to free speech, common decency must prevail and must therefore find its way – somehow –  on to the statute book.

Like love and toothache, it may be difficult to define, but we all know when we have got it.

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