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Is Further Social Media Legislation Needed?

Is Further Social Media Legislation Needed?

As new developments in technology and the way we consume media occur, social media continues to become more and more ingrained in our society. Social media has become a critical component of the way we both communicate and process information, and it’s likely not going anywhere.

The thought of a world without social media is a strange one, and likely a reality we’ll never see come to fruition. But as with any technological development, the increased use of social media comes with inherent risks, benefits, and disadvantages. As society weighs the threats posed by social media, it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider what life would be like if all social media was banned.

Short of that unlikely occurrence happening, it’s also fair to ask if legislation surrounding the use of social media is needed to regulate the activity that occurs on it.


Should Social Media Be Banned? 

When it comes to the idea of banning social media, at least one New Zealand man seems to think it’s a good idea. 46 year old Benjamin Seeley submitted a petition to the House of Representatives asked to ban social media – and in particular, Facebook – from New Zealand.

Seeley had this to say on the petition:

“I believe that there are too many instances of cyberbullying and threats of violence on Facebook and other social media…Nobody should put up with bullying by a complete stranger.”

Psychotherapists have argued one can get addicted to social media, which would lend some weight to the argument against it. However, the petition to ban it is quite a bold solution to a complex problem. It’s also not likely to ever come to pass. The popularity of the various social networks is too great at this point, and it’s almost unfeasible that the government would ever take the step of banning it outright. The consequences of such a damning and final activity would be too unpredictable.

While there are certainly downsides to social media, its ills must be considered alongside its positive uses: it brings family and friends closer together, helps encourage learning and has allowed a degree of information sharing never before seen in human history. Banning it would likely be seen by most as a case of drastic government overreach, interfering in the lives of its citizens in a way that seems unjust.

That doesn’t mean the idea isn’t without merit, however. It also raises the question of what threats the overuse and abuse of social media can lead to.


What Are the Risks of Social Media Use? 

While Seeley’s remedy seems to represent the equivalent of cutting off your arm to cure a sore wrist, he brings up some valid points about the risks posed by social media. As more and more people use these platforms, more dangerous after-effects are being discovered.

Only a few years ago, one study found that three out of five women in their late teens had been cyberbullied. In the 30-59 year old demographic, one in ten people had been cyberbullied. The number was doubled for those in their mid-to-late 20’s.

Those numbers are staggering. They also show that social media and the threat of online abuse represent more than just a nuisance to be waved off. If society plans to treat the mental health of its citizens with the appropriate amount of concern, then these repeated examples of cyberbullying and online abuse represent a troublesome public health threat.

While banning social media may seem a little far-fetched, the idea of legislating is not. In fact, with the disturbing numbers surrounding cyberbullying, it almost seems like some form of legislation is necessary at this point.


How Should Social Media Be Legislated? 

On April the 4th 2019, legislation was passed by the Australian Government, which promises to punish social media companies for not policing violent content posted on their platforms. It is now up to social media companies to regulate any content that promotes hate and violence, otherwise they face large fines and their executives may be punished with jail time.

Although many people of the Australian public have been waiting many years for such a bill to pass, there are those who oppose the bill. Some believe the government have rushed into the legislation and that it won’t achieve its intended purpose. Others believe that no such legislation should have ever passed in a democracy like Australia.

This brings up a relatively good point – does the bill bring disproportionate restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself, thus instead of protecting could the bill end up undermining the public?

Ireland is also looking to pass legislation around online safety. Irish Minister for Communications Richard Bruton has proposed the Online Safety Act. The Act would give a regulator – known as an “Online Safety Commissioner” – the ability to force social media firms to remove content that violates an established code of conduct. This would include:

  • Cyberbullying
  • Online activity that encourages self-harm or suicide
  • Other types of online harassment

It would also be up to online operators to draft a plan they would implement to keep their own users safe from these types of unwanted attention.

Irish laws currently on the books compel online operators to remove material that represents criminal activity or promotes violence, hatred, terrorism or child sexual abuse. The main issue is with the enforcement of these laws. Appointing an online safety commissioner may go a long way towards giving the current laws the ability to be enforced effectively.


Is Further Social Media Legislation Needed? 

Regulating social media is a nuanced issue, and government legislation is probably needed on some level in order to have any demonstrable effect on the public’s behaviour. On one hand, it is the role of a government to respect the freedom of its citizens. On the other hand, the government should also strive to protect these citizens as well.

For all the good it has brought to the world, social media has also brought in some bad. It has shined a light on behaviour that would be better left in the dark.

That’s why a balance between outright banning and no action is needed. In theory, legislation put in place to protect – rather than restrict speech or any other type of legal activity – should help shield innocent people from online abuse.

This won’t be an easy fix, and in the end, this will take a balanced, partisan common-sense approach to truly enable effective social media regulation. The most critical measure to consider as the debate on this issue rages on is to continue taking the threat of online bullying and harassment seriously.