My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on securing this excellent debate. As is always the case when one speaks late in such a rich debate, nearly everything that I would have said has already been said, and far more eloquently than I would have been able to do. Therefore, I will keep my comments brief.
I want to reiterate what many people have said already: that the current use of social media and internet platforms is an extraordinary new development and feature of our everyday life. The two-way nature of these platforms is extraordinary and unlike anything that society has ever witnessed before. We interact with information in ways that are often thought through but sometimes not enough time is spent in thinking about the consequences. We leave behind us a breadcrumb trail of information that can be gathered, harnessed, analysed and used for commercial profit.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, pointed out, these platforms can also bring huge benefits. They are not popular for no reason. An enormous amount of effort has gone into making them useful, and they often have huge beneficial consequences for the way we live our lives. That said, there is clearly a need for us as a society to think about our laws and about whether they are keeping pace with the current use of these platforms.
There is a unique aspect to the anonymity afforded by many of the providers, as some previous speakers have pointed out. Hiding under the cover of anonymity, it is possible to spread hatred, propaganda and abuse. However, it is also true to say that human nature dictates that we find people with real identities far more persuasive, and that has led to a new trend in fake personalities or fake accounts being created. Such accounts can be created very easily.
These platforms have become phenomenally popular and have achieved extremely high levels of penetration because of the ease of their use. By their very nature, it is easy and quick to set up accounts, and a low level of checks and balances is applied. That means that it is now possible to create and control a relatively small number of accounts. Co-ordinated action then leads to stories being published, then republished, “liked” and followed, and they, in turn, are picked up by algorithms that have been designed to make our news feeds and information flows more relevant to our interests.
Therefore, an extraordinary facilitating action of these platforms enables fake news and other propaganda to achieve vast audiences. It is now possible for news to circumnavigate the globe almost instantly. In the time that it takes for something to be checked and then challenged, lives are ruined and reputations can be irreparably damaged. These platforms have also learned how to attract our attention and generate the advertising revenues on which they thrive. The more outrageous and enticing the headlines, the more likely it is that they will receive attention.
There are obviously many other aspects that require our serious attention, and I just want to think about some solutions. There is clearly a need for us to acknowledge that self-regulation is insufficient. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, gave the example of children being expected to flag content that they find distressing, but that is clearly not sufficient. It is very important that we now expend public money and effort on providing a neutral and independent set of checks and balances on this entire industry. That is not without precedent. There are many people who are able to devote themselves to creating the same sorts of tools that have been used to combat advertising fraud or maximise advertising revenue, and they can be brought together in the public good and be funded from the public purse to create a check and a balance against the needs of the industry.
Education and keeping ourselves informed is a huge responsibility that we all must bear. It is possible to move away from the household brands and find alternatives with similarly interesting names, such as the Epic browser, the Comodo Dragon browser and the DuckDuckGo browser, which enable you to have a very different experience of the web in which you are not leaving behind a hugely valuable data trail and can insulate yourself slightly from some of its worst aspects. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, talked about unionising users, which is an exciting idea that should be explored. With the great power we have in using these platforms, we should be able to exert pressure back on them.