My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for tabling the debate this afternoon and, in doing so, I declare my interest as a board member of the BBC.
Social media has transformed many disabled people’s lives. It has allowed new and news media to flourish and encouraged sharing of information. I would not want to go back to a time before social media and the internet. I remember being in the USA when the worst of the Rwanda genocide was happening and knew nothing about it because it was not covered anywhere.
I have spoken previously about how information is pushed through algorithms that try to second-guess preferences. While that may be valuable for advertising, we need to be reminded that it gives us a different, and while potentially increased perceived, choice, in reality it is far less than that.
I use social media quite a lot, and I have had many positive experiences. Sitting very late one night in your Lordships’ Chamber, I tweeted that I had not had anything to eat and within minutes had had several offers of pizza at the Peers’ Entrance. At 12.14 pm today I found out that there was a possibility of a joint Korean team competing at the Winter Olympics in hockey; at 1 pm I found out about a young disabled woman who has had her speech machine stolen and cannot communicate with her family.
However, I wish to talk about a very personal experience of social media. On Christmas Eve, I posted a moment in time. Ultimately, it was not going to change my life, but I could not get on a train. It was annoying and a bit irritating, as every other non-disabled person who was on the platform was able to get on, as they had the two previous trains. I did not think it was a news story but apparently it was. It showed how little control I had over something that affected me. Within minutes it was on news sites and I was taking calls from local and national newspapers. It received 320,000 impressions, 511 direct responses, 1,522 retweets and 1,360 likes. When I tried to rationalise it, I thought my post had raised an issue that affected millions of disabled people and helped others to articulate the experiences that they had. Of course, it brought out the trolls; the best that I can repeat is that people like me should not be allowed out. But this was something that I had spent less than a minute contemplating posting—possibly a valuable lesson for us all.
While propaganda may always have existed, it is now about the speed at which “news”—I say that in quotes—travels, and the responsibility that comes with it. It is not the same as a traditional news outlet and we need to think very differently about how it is regulated. I have concerns about the proliferation of these sites. What one person calls news, for another person is chip paper. You choose to follow a view because you agree or do not agree with it. I support difference of opinion; we need to be challenged to get the best out of the decisions that we make.
There is a great deal of positivity, and there are very responsible outlets that work hard to educate. My daughter is 15, and at her school they educate pupils through delivery of the EPQ skills lessons, with sessions on data literacy. They are taught to have a healthy scepticism about statistics; there are separate sessions on evaluating sources, both on and offline, and they cover fake news. So education gives you a choice. I understand that the Government may not want regulation; there is an element of Big Brother to that. Does the Minister agree, however, that social media companies should take much greater responsibility for the content distributed through their platforms?
Finally, while I recognise the positivity of social media, with the speed of development of platforms and technology we need to be much more mindful of what failure of self-regulation may look like and remain ahead of the curve, because dialling back is just too awful to contemplate.