My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Kidron on securing this important and timely debate. The social media industry is evolving very quickly and, as we have heard already, reality has overtaken the traditional ways of looking at news and publishing.
The large social media companies have become an important source of news for many people—indeed, for younger people, it seems they have already become the main source of news. A small handful of social media companies now have a dominant position and are driving advertising away from traditional news outlets. This dominance has been strengthened further as a result of consolidation amongst the big players, such as Google’s acquisition of YouTube or Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. Indeed, Google and Facebook now command a level of dominance over the media industry and advertising revenues that Rupert Murdoch could only ever dream about—Facebook has more than 2 billion active users.
Increasingly, these social media companies are actually determining what news we see. Whether this is purely by algorithm or by human intervention makes no difference—they are still choosing the stories that we read. We have to question the extent to which advertising, both overt and covert, influences what the social media companies show us. Sensationalist “fake news” stories generate more hits and therefore more advertising revenues. There is little commercial incentive for these largely unregulated companies to police this, and the record of them doing so, so far, is very poor. That said, there are some welcome signs that the big players are starting to understand that they have responsibilities. The arguments made by social media that they are simply technology companies with no responsibility for what happens on their platforms are looking increasingly threadbare. Some regulation is, unfortunately, now necessary.
However, there is a spectrum here. Should a closed family WhatsApp group be regulated in the same way as a curated newsfeed? Should a small specialist chatroom, run by enthusiasts, discussing, say, hockey, be regulated as a newspaper? I would suggest not. We need to find a balance. Regulation as news and content publishers only solves part of the problem. For example, filter bubbles exist just as strongly in traditional media: many people read just one newspaper of a particular political colour. Education to encourage young people to question what they are reading is therefore, I believe, of fundamental importance. Social media can be a force for good here and provide access to a greater variety of sources, if done properly.
A key question from my point of view is why many people seem willing to behave online in a way that they would never do to people’s faces—bullying, hate speech, trolling, even death threats. I suspect that this may be due, at least in part, to the culture of anonymity that pervades social media. I do not have an easy answer to that. There is a strong argument that anonymity is important for freedom of speech, particularly in situations where dissent is dangerous. But it seems to me that, in addition to recognising the reality that the social media giants have become, in part, publishing companies, we also need to look very closely at the question of online anonymity.