Here in the UK, an uninterrupted torrent of headlines in recent months have been to the effect that social media corporations, such as Facebook and Twitter, should be doing more to combat ‘fake news’. They appear to be driven for the most part by governmental or quasi-governmental agencies like GCHQ, and sometimes by MPs themselves. The growing chorus is that these companies are responsible for the content published on their platforms, and that they should somehow be vetting the 4.75 billion daily posts on their platforms to check that they’re not about fiddling with kiddies, dissing Mohammed, or suggesting a nice day out wearing a rather volatile vest. Or reminiscing on David Cameron’s affection for charlie and pigs, probably.
Image: Animated Heaven – CC0 1.0
All of this betrays a reluctance to engage with the twenty-first century. It demonstrates a lack of comprehension of what it is that these companies actually are. They’re a medium, nothing more nor less. They’re not the ones creating the ‘fake news’, people are just utilising their technology to put it out there. Does that mean that they’re responsible for it? They have policies in place to remove content and close accounts once they’re made aware of such things, but is it reasonable to expect them to act pre-emptively?
If someone is in the a habit of making nuisance phone calls then they can be prosecuted, and in theory banned from the network. Not once have I heard it suggested that BT should have prevented the calls in the first place. If I start writing abusive and threatening letters to people then I’ll be breaking the law, and may receive a knock on the door from a man in uniform with a big stick and a deep-seated inferiority complex. No one would be asking questions in the Houses of Parliament about why Royal Mail weren’t steaming my envelopes open.
Let’s play one of my favourite games, reductio ad absurdum. It’s a fun game for all the family, and anyone can play it. Under the rules of this game I can blame Network Rail for the July 2005 London Underground bombings. I can hold the South Devon Chilli Farm responsible when I eventually try eating anything cooked with my Bhut Jolokias. I can point the finger at the local shop for my many years of tortured alcoholic drinking, and Spotify can be sued for the PTSD suffered after accidentally listening to Lorde.
Politicians are either aware of this and playing to the gallery, are deflecting attention because they have no idea how to deal with the problem properly through the police and courts, or have their heads stuck firmly up their dark ages.
None of these possibilities are good.