Long untouchable, web giants now know what it feels like to be hunted

Governments, after years of indulgence, are rightly getting tough on social media sites

The key question to ask when a shocking tragedy comes to light is this: does it signify a scandal or a crisis? Scandals happen all the time in societies. They generate a lot of heat, outrage and public angst. But, eventually, the media caravan moves on and nothing much changes.

When in 2011, for example, the Guardian printed shocking revelations of tabloid phone-hacking and, particularly, the news that reporters had hacked the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, many observers concluded that this indicated a crisis for the British newspaper industry. Initially, the signs were promising: solemn statement by the prime minister, ubiquitous shock-horror-outrage, closure of a big newspaper, a judicial inquiry – all the trappings of a democracy embarking on radical reform. But in the end, nothing much changed. British tabloids are as intrusive and crass as ever. And the industry remains “self-regulated”. It was just another scandal, after all.

Spool forward to the tragic case of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who killed herself after exploring her depression on Instagram. When her family looked into her account, they found sombre material about depression and suicide. Her father said that he believed the Facebook-owned platform had “helped kill my daughter”. This prompted Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to warn social media platforms to “purge” material relating to self-harm and suicide or face legislation that would compel them to do so. In response, Instagram and Pinterest (another social media outfit) issued the standard bromides about how they were embarking on a “full review” of their policies etc.

So is Molly’s case a crisis or a scandal? You know the answer. Nothing much will change because the business models of the platforms preclude it. Their commercial imperatives are remorselessly to increase both the number of their users and the intensity of those users’ “engagement” with the platforms. That’s what keeps the monetisable data flowing. Tragedies such as Molly Russell’s suicide are regrettable (and of course have PR downsides) but are really just the cost of running such a profitable business.

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