By Mike Rouse.

The events of the past week have helped the world to see Facebook in a slightly different light, or to be more precise it has helped some of those legislators who have been wantonly blind to Facebook’s problems finally forced to confront them.

The same could be said for the Metropolitan Police who have also been shown to have massive failures of controls that should be keeping people safe. It beggars belief the kind of failings in leadership and governance we have seen over the last few years.

For Facebook it was a tale of two halves. First was the outage on Monday 4th October 2021. Happens to the best of them, and I’m surprised we do not see it more often. 

I was at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester when it happened. A deathly silence befell my WhatsApps and for a while I was forced to employ verbal communication. 

Then there was the testimony of whistleblower Frances Haugen. She is not the first and will not be the last. Facebook is facing some big issues, but are they existential? When the outage was over everyone just went back to how it was before.

It feels like we are well into a dystopian future now – more like Mad Max than 1984 with the freedom to abuse others being the norm.

Even politicians at my local level have been subjected to online abuse in the comments, leaving me to pursue matters with the police because Facebook thought the freedom to deliberately attempt to cause damage to someone’s professional reputation by making a false allegation was more important than any other consideration. I can still recall the feeling in my gut when I saw the response from Facebook to material that was a clear breach of the law: “This content does not breach our Community Standards.” 

There was one appeal button, which I pressed, and then returned to doomscrolling the newsfeed. Within seconds the notification came that my appeal had been heard and the original decision upheld. It must have been the quickest appeal hearing in history. 

The only routes left open to me were to pursue matters with the police, which was very heavy-handed and arguably a waste of resources for the police to be called into a situation regarding what is essentially a private property that already has rules in place that are supposed to protect people. There appears to be very little middle ground, very little by way of dealing with things in a reasonable manner.

The attitude from the social media companies is essentially: if it’s really that bad, call the police you big baby, it’s not our problem. 

It’s not just Facebook either. A friend of mine has been attacked on Twitter for her physical appearance. She reported the tweets and so did I, but no action has ever been taken. The reporting tools focus on threats of violence only. The social media companies say they allow people to report concerns, but ask anyone who’s been a victim and they’ll tell you a different story, especially women who find there are no buttons to report sexual harassment and harmful unsolicited messages. There’s even a petition to try and change that, but don’t hold your breath. 

As conservatives we are quite rightly reluctant to regulate unless necessary. But not only is it now necessary for governments around the world to step in, it’s long overdue.  

The Online Safety Bill that is before the UK Parliament is a legislative piece of work that could not move more slowly if it tried. But what good will it be without similar legislation in every other country in the world. 

Meanwhile, in the bubble that is the world of Facebook’s corporate HQ we have a missive from Mark Zuckerberg to employees and graciously shared to his public profile. You see, one thing Facebook is very good at is use of the word ‘transparency’, and they use this to cover for the absence of effective governance. 

Mark wrote: 

“I wanted to reflect on the public debate we’re in. I’m sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know. We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health. It’s difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.”

Dare I say welcome to the club, Mark, and allow me to introduce to you every other person who has tried to put right the wrongs spread across your own platform that ‘misrepresents’ their work and their motives. What about the false picture put out about so many people and companies that exist within your platform that your company does absolutely nothing back. I’m struggling to find sympathy for the untouchable tech billionaire I have to say.

Mark Zuckerberg then puts up a lengthy defence of the company, the kind of which would make Cressida Dick of the Metropolitan Police proud. There are stark similarities at play here. Both organisations play a huge part in the public discourse, whether we like it or not, but more importantly both of them are completely incapable of recognising and owning their mistakes. There’s always an excuse, there’s always someone else at fault, there’s always some bigger picture that the rest of us are all too dumb to see, apparently. 

However, the tide is turning and the bubbles these leaders live within are set to burst.

Priti Patel is said to be at the end of her tether with the defensiveness of the Metropolitan Police and rightly so. Perhaps the rest of society needs to find the end of its tether when it comes to social media companies, and perhaps political leaders need to enact the legislation they have talked about and threatened for years now.

As Greta might say: it’s all blah, blah, blah.

For more from Mike Rouse please follow him on Twitter.

© 2021 Mike Rouse

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