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Social media must take the lead in protecting the community

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The charge sheet of crimes allegedly committed by giant social media companies such as Facebook has grown a lot longer recently.

A few years ago Facebook was rocked by a scandal over its sharing of individuals’ personal data with a political research organisation called Cambridge Analytica without their consent.

But in the past few weeks its image problem has grown worse. A former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, blew the whistle at a US congressional committee hearing with internal documents that showed the company was warned of the harmful psychological impacts on teenagers of its popular app Instagram.

The internal documents also revealed that Facebook makes exceptions to its in-house rules banning incitement to violence and harassment for certain high-profile accounts.

Then, on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched an attack on social media companies for spreading anonymous misinformation about Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s daughter. Mr Morrison called social media sites a “coward’s palace” for anonymous internet trolls.

Facebook has already taken some steps to meet these criticisms. It says it will warn teenage users to take a break and nudge people away from sites that could be bad for their wellbeing.

But this might not be enough and pressure is growing for social media to be subject to regulation comparable with that faced by traditional forms of media, including newspapers such as the Herald.

In his remarks on Friday, Mr Morrison hinted that he might require social media companies to make users prove their identity. A cross-party Senate report in April recommended this change to help combat family, domestic and sexual violence.

The measure sounds attractive but it raises privacy concerns and some experts say that many people use their real names when spreading online misinformation and abuse. Mr Morrison does not need a new law to track down the identity of MP Craig Kelly.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has also proposed changing defamation laws in relation to social media companies’ liability for damaging posts by third parties.

In fact, social media companies, just like traditional media such as the Herald, can be and have been sued under existing law for posts by third parties on their platforms.

The Herald has been sued by Northern Territory detainee Dylan Voller for posts under a story on its Facebook page.

The problem is that current defamation law fails to distinguish clearly between responsible companies that take down bad posts quickly and those that do not.

The law cannot reasonably make Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg liable for all the billions of posts on his platforms. It would kill the internet.

But it should make Facebook responsible for taking down abusive posts as quickly as practical.

Of course, deciding what needs to be taken down is a vexed question. When Twitter cancelled Donald Trump’s account it was accused of censorship.

Facebook says it is already taking down lots of inappropriate material, including 30 million posts about terrorism and 19 million posts that incited hatred last year. But it should devote more resources to curating its websites to comply with community standards.

It must also ensure it complies with the federal government’s landmark online safety act which takes effect next year. The act will give the e-safety commissioner powers to demand social media companies take down content that it considers to be serious adult cyber abuse within 24 hours.

Rather than waiting for a crackdown from regulators, social media companies must take the lead in protecting the community.

Note from the Editor

The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

The Herald's View – Since the Herald was first published in 1831, the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers, always putting the public interest first.

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