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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Public Affairs / 299: Beware of being blamed: just look at social media

Politicians sometimes like to blame entire sectors for perceived failures even if they do not always entirely deserve it. With that blame comes reputational damage and the threat of new regulation. How can we avoid such a situation from arising?

What is happening to social media companies provides some lessons for us all. It is all too easy to lay the blame for inappropriate content and the cesspit of the views at the feet of social media companies. For many, especially politicians, they have been dragging their feet in cleaning themselves up and taking actions against the perpetrators of disgusting views.

Regulation and taxation is being threatened against social media companies across the world. That could be imposed by individual countries or, as has been advocated by Facebook, at the global level. Whether that is realistic is debatable, at least in the short term, but countries do believe that they can impose some behaviour change themselves through regulation.

Certainly the social media companies do take action against fake news as well as some of the more extreme views expressed. But there continue to be examples of action not being taken or the action being too slow for many. Just look at the recent examples of the racist abuse suffered by footballers. So this ‘market failure’ gives politicians permission to step in and think about what they can do. Governments invariably give the companies to put their own houses in order first before then stepping in when they do not get the results they want.

Of course, social media companies need to carry some responsibility for what is carried on their channels but it is always easier to blame others and that is what governments are invariably doing.

Politicians say a whole number of outrageous things on social media and that doesn’t just apply to Donald Trump before he was kicked off Facebook and Twitter. They too help spread fake news and make false allegations, or maybe interpret issues in a way that appeals to their base. Sometimes they delete the worst examples when they called out over it but by that point the damage is already done.

There is also too little done to call out colleagues for any online misbehaviour. In this apparently divided work, politicians call out opponents but stay silent or even back colleagues for their comments. In the US, we have the obvious examples of Trump and his supporters contesting the election and another impeachment this time focused on the storming the Capitol. But similar online behaviour went on throughout his Presidency.

In France, even the President seems willing to help the spread of misinformation about the UK’s position on Covid and vaccines. He may not have used social media channels but his comments were amplified using them. Other European politicians have used Twitter to mock the Prime Minister. Here there is the ongoing issue of a Minister appearing to attack a journalist on Twitter which led a No 10 adviser to threaten resignation.

All this, it can be argued is contributing to the decline in trust which reports, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer, shows to be a problem across politics, business and journalism. Simply laying the blame at the channel of communications used, social media, does not explain why the fall in trust, why discourse seems to be so polarised or why abuse is rife.

A useful starting point would be for politicians to consider their own social media activity, and comments that can be used by others on the platforms, before threatening regulation. They should reflect on their own behaviour first. But the question for those on the receiving end is how much to point this out and how much to push back? It takes a brave organisation or sector to do that.

But it’s not just politicians. Take the example of Leeds United Football who subsequently condemned the abuse that result from a tweet that led to pile-on of pundit and ex footballer, Karen Carney. Some rightly came out and criticised the club but the tweet remains in place.

Falling into the easy trap of regulation or legislation shows that tough action is being taken but may not solve the problem. In the case of social media, it would remove responsibility from reflecting on online actions and would not address the fundamental ills.

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