The public value freedom from abuse more than freedom of speech, major new research into the future of social media and online communications can reveal.
The polling, which was conducted by Opinium with Compassion in Politics and a number of other civil society organisations, found that 2 in 3 (60%) believe the government’s new Online Safety Bill should focus on protecting people from abuse rather than fixating on freedom of speech.
The research also showed that the public believe the government needs to be much bolder in addressing the problems of abuse and misinformation online.
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Critically the public think the Bill should provide just as much protection from abusive material for adults as it does for children. Under the current proposals, social media sites would be required to actively prevent the circulation of content that is deemed harmful to children. When it comes to content considered harmful to adults, however, they would only be expected to produce user guides explaining what kind of content is considered appropriate or inappropriate.
Campaigners argue this offers the platforms a get out of jail free card, relieving them of the responsibility to properly moderate content that is harmful to adults and instead putting the burden on individual users. The public appear to agree: 69% say that the social media sites should actively prevent the circulation of abusive or otherwise harmful content on their sites. Just 8% agree with the government’s current proposal.
The research also aimed at understanding what the public view as being “harmful” content online. 2 in 3 agreed that using intimidating or threatening language (65%), sharing intimate images without consent (also 65%), spreading false information about an individual (63%), or distributing content that might lead someone to commit suicide or harm another person (61%) should be considered harmful and therefore requires moderation.
Still more than half (58%) agree that transphobic, racist, sexist, ableist, ageist, and homophobic language is harmful and a similar proportion (53%) think spreading false information about an issue constitutes a harm.
Exactly 1 in 2 (50%) say using generally aggressive language meets the definition of a harm.
The public are also highly sceptical about certain aspects of the Bill. Most prominent is a section which aims to protect “content of democratic importance.” Organisations have been worried this could create a loophole, allowing individuals to abusive or false information online on the basis that it is “democratically” important. 1 in 3 (36%) believe that this exemption should not exist within the Bill while 1 in 4 (25%) believe it should.
Asked about who should moderate social media companies’ compliance with the new Bill, the public overwhelmingly want to see this power given to an independent regulator. The current proposal would see Ofcom charged with implementing the Bill but would also hold back certain powers for the government to, for example, decide that a particular form of content should or should not be moderated. The public do not believe this should be the case and instead support giving that authority to Ofcom or another third-party regulator. 2 in 3 (63%) agree with this idea while just 21% want those powers to remain with the government. Just 13% think social media companies should continue to self-regulate.
The report was compiled by the civil society organisations Compassion in Politics, FairVote UK, Clean Up The Internet, and Glitch.
Jennifer Nadel, Co-Director of Compassion in Politics, said:
“This is a public mandate for the government to be bold and ambitious in tackling the scourge of online abuse and misinformation. Its current proposals fall way short - their draft Online Safety Bill marks yet another concession to the big social media companies who will continue to determine exactly how far they should go in moderating abusive content and judging how good they are at doing so. It is like giving the poachers the key to the chicken coop. This is not the way to create a safe online environment. Social media companies are businesses not public bodies. The government needs to take a firm hand by ensuring these platforms are legally required to prevent the spread of abuse, lies, and harassment, remove repeat offenders, and create a space for debate that is respectful, inclusive, and compassionate."
Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK said:
“This polling shows that UK voters are extremely savvy and acutely aware of the harm posed by the unfettered power of social media companies. They believe all users should be treated equally and the government should be doing far more to reduce the spread of disinformation, no matter the source. Big tech have shown time and again that they are incapable of regulating themselves. From Covid disinformation that has led to loss of human life to racist abuse targeted at footballers and public servants, the evidence is clear and something must be done. It's time our democratically elected government prioritise the safety of its citizens over corporate profit.”
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