The internet has proved a mixed blessing. As a way of communicating, almost instantaneously, with far distant family, friends and colleagues; as a resource of information with the proviso the provenance of the data needs to be tested for accuracy; and to provide a sure-fire way of keeping abreast of current affair, it has ticked all the right boxes. The flip side is less benign, generating, through a host of social media platforms, vast quantities of misinformation, some of it unintentional, born out of either ignorance or hearsay, and some disinformation that is propaganda, a deliberate attempt to substitute facts for political rhetoric that is designed to mislead people into believing falsehoods, a kind of brainwashing. It is the sinister activities of some users of the internet that presents an existential threat to our liberties.
Democratic regimes hold firm to the belief of allowing the public to express its views as being of utmost importance. There are, of course, checks on what can be expressed, with laws to protect people from a raft of discriminatory, offensive comments, and rightly so; but, increasingly, with the proliferation of social media sites, policing the plethora of obscene responses to whatever is the focus of news, is incredible difficult. Yes, there is an understood code of practice that social media platforms, in theory, subscribe to but it is evident from concerns expressed by governments that sites are not sufficiently regulated. In part this is because of the revenue many platforms receive from advertisers and the primary goal of such sites is to maintain their popularity, thus ensuring increasing numbers of subscribers. In a world where sound bites are what counts, asking people to think for themselves, researching subject-matter, appears to be a non-starter. It is the last image that counts, the last words uttered by a celebrity that has most meaning, and like the constantly swimming goldfish, that is fine until the next sensation, the former ones having faded and meant nothing, anyway!
What is particularly worrying, as voiced by the current Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, is using the internet to disseminate hate by posting propaganda and sensationalist photographs often aimed at young viewers. Adams feels so strongly about the misuse of social media he advocates shutting down many platforms, but therein lies the problem for a free society; balancing the right to express opinions against deliberate manipulation of events to secure an outcome intended by the perpetrator. The Hamas-Israel war is an example of how easy it is to shock people by showing explicit photographs of Palestinians in various degrees of stress without any commentary explaining the context; and then piling on the propaganda to malign Israel, with accusations of genocide, inhumanity and disproportionality in the use of force. What is even more sinister is the linkage between the one-sided presentation of Israel’s alleged war crimes with odious antisemitic tropes. Holocaust deniers have been given the opportunity to peddle their ideology of anti-historicism but all the old cancerous hatreds have come to the fore: the blood libels, the fake ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, the accusations Jews control the media, the wealth of the world, and you name it, Jewish dominance is “self evident”. These slurs would be laughable if it wasn’t for the powerful resonance to the virulent antisemitism of the Nazi propaganda publication ‘Der Stürmer’. Sadly, this deeply offensive narrative is not confined to the internet; literature echoing Nazi antisemitism is freely available in many Arab countries, feeding impressionable young people, and the not so young, with a diet of hatred.
We know from recent events in Britain that propaganda-susceptible individuals can be radicalized to turn against the country of their birth or adoption, and support organization that are intent on destroying our liberal values, ones that are exploited to achieve an Islamist dictatorship. From the recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations on the streets of many cities around the world, where protestors, some of whom openly belong to the LGBTQIA+ community, would find themselves on the wrong side of history if the strictures of Islam were applied to their lifestyle choices. Ignorance is no defense in law, and naivety is no excuse for not doing your homework!
The counter-argument for not exercising greater checks on the content of social media sites is parental responsibility. Although there are safeguards parents can take to limit access to potentially harmful sites, the reality is many parents have absolutely no idea what their children watch on the internet. This is possibly more likely the case where parents are not home to supervise what their children watch. Pederast gangs target children, grooming them to physically expose themselves, and that in itself deeply concerns Mayor Adams, where he cites child abuse as his main justification for shutting down social media: perhaps an extreme example. But the fact is our liberal society does give licence to those whose wicked intent is difficult to control. We have seen how challenging regulating the press is; the Leveson Report of 2012 was not fully implemented, and for governments to keep tabs on a mushrooming social media industry is even more demanding. So what can be done?