Saqib Bhatti is MP for Meriden.
I am a great believer in the good that social media has done since its inception over the last two decades. It has transformed the way we interact, the way we share ideas, the way in which we stay connected and has brought communities together.
With global challenges such as climate change, poverty, and even the conflict we are now witnessing in Ukraine, social media has facilitated a global conversation about the issues.
However, for as long as I can remember, Twitter and platforms like Facebook have been vehicles for the good and the bad that takes place in the online world.
Elon Musk’s audacious bid for Twitter has been characteristically headline grabbing across the globe. Musk has fired the starting gun on what is likely to be a new world order in the way we interact online. After his takeover bid was accepted, he tweeted a celebratory message with the following note:
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated… I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
This is a laudable intention, and it is precisely why, last year, I and 50 of my colleagues wrote to social media giants, including Twitter, asking them to take the necessary steps to clean up the most egregious abuses on the internet.
We had asked for three things – all accounts to be verified, the algorithm to be adjusted with human interaction to account for differences in languages, and a “three strikes and you are out” policy for serial offenders to know that they can no longer get away with abuse.
Unfortunately, not all the companies replied. Those that did, took the view that they were already doing enough. Plainly this was neither true; nor was it surprising.
Social media companies, which thrive and profit off user engagement and the length of interaction, have failed to curb online abuse and have in fact thrived off it.
You don’t have to take my word for it. There are plenty of examples where social media companies haven’t done enough.
If you are in the public eye and a woman, you are likely to be subject to unacceptable levels of misogyny and yet nothing meaningful is ever done to stop it from happening.
The same goes for racism. Last year, the whole country was gripped by the success of our national football team in the Euros. Sadly, we lost another penalty shootout and the three young black men who had been our heroes were subject to a torrent of racist abuse.
Abuse on Twitter was rife and monkey emojis that were used to taunt them were not taken down because the Instagram algorithm did not deem it to be racist. Whilst the public outcry was significant, the response from the social media companies was lacking.
The desire to have greater regulation in the online world is not to curtail our rights to free speech; it is because there is a need to protect free speech from the toxicity of abuse and harms that the Online Safety Bill has become a necessity. It is needed to stop the arguments of free speech being used as a mask for what is abusive and harmful behaviour.
It cannot be right that social media algorithms, in their efforts to prolong screen time, will lead young girls to watch videos that promote eating disorders or suicide.
That is why the Government has taken an intelligent approach to try and address the harmful media online while also balancing the needs to protect freedom of speech. Their ambition to be safest place in the world to use the Internet is certainly commendable.
Fundamentally, social media companies have failed to recognise their moral duty to tackle online abuse. Accepting abusive behaviour must not be an inevitable consequence of being in the public eye.
Unfortunately, social media companies have allowed a culture of abuse to fester online in return for what I can only describe as digital blood money.
As Musk has shown, if they have the will to change, they certainly have the skill, innovative ability and resource to make it happen. It is now time for Meta, TikTok, Reddit, and Snapchat to step up or get left behind.