David Behrens: We’ve let social media become a malignant force – it’s time to act

WE sleepwalked into the crisis that now threatens the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. This week, finally, it awoke the ire of a Minister.

Calls to regulate Facebook are growing

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, laid it on the line to Facebook, Twitter and the other giants of social media. They must purge themselves and the internet of content that promotes self-harm and suicide among the most vulnerable in society, he said, or expect laws to do it for them.

That he is right, there is no question. That it has taken until now for someone in his position to say so is an indictment of the extent to which we have lost touch – both with technology and with our young people.

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It was the tragedy of a 14-year-old girl taking her life after viewing material on Instagram, a photo sharing platform owned by Facebook, that stirred Mr Hancock. There was, as both he and the Children’s Commissioner pointed out, an avalanche of inappropriate material coming at children, yet no statutory duty of care imposed on the publishers.

The Duchess of Sussex has been the target of online vitriol

How did we get ourselves to the point where unregulated and apparently unconcerned corporations are left in charge of the dissemination of information, and indeed misinformation, to an entire sector of the population? We spent generations regulating the broadcast industry to prevent exactly that outcome.

Unfortunately, the internet moved faster than people could get their heads around it. Managers across all sectors embraced every new development, however faddish, because they didn’t want to be seen as out of touch.

The peer pressure was even stronger, as it always is, among inquiring young minds which were drawn instinctively to the technology. As Ofsted noted this week, many children have drifted away from real-life interaction entirely. They find it too much effort.

Left to find its own level, almost anything will descend to that of the lowest common denominator, and in this case, it is the playground bully.

No-one knows this better than the Duchess of Sussex, who has been the object of so much invective that even Hello! magazine has been moved to action, campaigning to stem the flow of anonymous comments that would never be made to someone’s face.

But social media is malignant; it can’t be cured by campaigns alone. It’s going to take the kind of legislation of which Mr Hancock speaks.

There is, of course, no harm in responsible adults using Facebook to keep in touch with each other, nor even in vacuously sharing pictures of a plate of egg and chips, over Instagram. That was its intended purpose.

But to suggest that there is some deeper purpose behind it all – that the right to be banal, trivial and downright insulting is somehow enshrined in our freedom of speech – is a fallacy. Social media is no more part of the national debate than an argument in a pub in which everyone shouts at once and then a fight breaks out.

I realise, too, that Facebook and Twitter are marketing tools, but they’re really bad ones. Any handbook will tell you that the first requirement of the marketeer is to retain control of the message – not cast it out to be drowned in a sea of vitriol.

Yet the perpetrators seem immune to criticism. Facebook has paid lip service to those who try to regulate it. Even its paid mouthpiece, Sir Nick Clegg – the same Nick Clegg who was an MP in Sheffield until the year before last – was forced to acknowledge this as he tried to mount a defence.

The company has tried to buy itself credibility by hiring him as its head of global affairs, and in his first move this week, he suggested that tech firms and politicians work together to regulate social media. Clegg’s own credibility hinges on helping to broker changes, so it is to be hoped that Matt Hancock is pushing at an open door.

And there is an easy first step. Shops – though they may not like it – seem to have no trouble in enforcing a ban on selling cigarettes and alcohol to anyone under a certain age. They face stiff fines if they fail to enforce it.

Why should the internet be different? Why should we not fine Facebook for every account it allows to be created by someone under 16?

Here is a company that has wielded its size and power destructively and irresponsibly. Even Nick Clegg admitted that the way it paid its taxes was unsustainable. It’s time we cut it down to size – and its bank balance is exactly the place to start.