Malevolent content online affects everyone not just schoolchildren - David Behrens

So now we know: the problem with schools isn’t too few staff and too little money but an attention deficit among pupils who can’t take their eyes off their phones for long enough to look at the blackboard.

That, at any rate, is if you believe ministers who this week announced plans to ban the use of mobiles in classrooms. Teachers would now be able to search children and confiscate their handsets, said the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, who touted the move as a significant step forward.

She is deluding herself – for, as many headteachers were quick to tell her, it’s not mobiles in schools that are the problem; it’s mobiles everywhere else.

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The classroom, in fact, is one of the few places of sanctuary for children from the abuse and criminality distilled onto their screens. It’s when they’re back home that they need protecting.

A man using credit card and laptop to login to internet bank. PIC: AdobeA man using credit card and laptop to login to internet bank. PIC: Adobe
A man using credit card and laptop to login to internet bank. PIC: Adobe

As a matter of fact, we all do. There is now so much malevolent content online, whether hateful, dishonest or just plain stupid, that no-one is unaffected by it.

Two more examples emerged this week of how hard it has become to take anything you see at face value. A cyber-security firm reported that artificial intelligence was making it possible even for people who can’t write English to subvert the elections here and in the US. In other words, illiterate scammers who previously contented themselves by sending you emails beginning ‘Dear valued customer’ can now plant disinformation sophisticated enough to turn you against Sir Keir Starmer. Although, in fairness, his own party is making a good enough fist of that.

At the same time, the consumer group Which? warned that the number of fake adverts on social media and mainstream search engines was out of control. And before you tell me that only a moron would fall for one of those, let me say that I’m not and I did.

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It was just after last year’s mowing season began that I ordered a hedge trimmer on a pole that would save me the trouble and the NHS the expense of falling off a ladder and slicing my arm off.

I chose a Spear and Jackson, a little cheaper than the same one at Argos, from a website highlighted by Google on its first page of search results. The firm had a landline number and a real address in Manchester which I checked on Google Maps. Unfortunately, as I learned later, it was someone else’s address.

I discovered I’d been scammed after the delivery day came and went, when my bank texted to ask if I’d authorised an additional payment of £95. They blocked that and refunded the original amount so I was lucky – but the bogus advert and website remained live for others to see.

What’s more, I came across multiple similar adverts for other products in the following months – all adding to Google’s profits and all pointing to fake firms whose only business was harvesting credit card numbers. I can say with certainty that Google knew this was going on because I told them so myself.

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Which? found many more fake ads on Facebook, Instagram, X and YouTube. Some were impersonating Currys or M&S; others claimed they were Martin Lewis. All were placed by crooks whose bona fides the big tech companies failed to check.

These, remember, are the same companies that expose our children to the countless other harms they facilitate: bullying, grooming, sexual exploitation, you name it. You don’t need artificial intelligence to see that these are the people Gillian Keegan and her colleagues should be targeting, not their young victims.

And while it’s true that there is a new Online Safety Act, it’s already proving as effective as a piece of fly paper against a swarm of wasps.

It would help if politicians and their departments knew more about the technology they’re supposed to be regulating but most can’t open the lid of a laptop without calling the helpdesk – though they’re fine at bulk deleting their WhatsApp messages when it suits them.

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Yet the problem isn’t as hopeless as they think – because we’re not talking about catching hundreds of thousands of individual harm-doers; just a few dozen big companies who connect those outlaws with their potential victims. How hard can it be to slap punitive fines on them for propagating content proved to be bogus? We might not catch every case but we’d at least incentivise them to start weeding out malevolent content at source.

If the internet is to be the force for good that we know it can be, we can’t leave it to regulate itself. We tried that and it didn’t work.

Nor can we fix it by preventing children from staring at their screens while the government looks the other way.

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