Stephen Fry was right to call for greater regulation.
In 1695 the English Parliament forgot to re-enact a resolution introduced during the Civil War for “regulations of printing and printing presses”, supervised by the Stationers’ Company, which held a monopoly on book production. As soon as regulation ended, a proliferation of information sheets and newspapers hit the streets leading eventually to the rise of the free press.
Writing in The History of England Volume IV Revolution (2016), Peter Ackroyd notes:
“Within a fortnight of the end of censorship, a paper entitled Intelligence, Domestic and Foreign began to circulate; this was followed by The English Courant, The Post Man, The Post Boy, The Weekly News-Letter and others. Some of them left blank spaces so that the reader might fill in more current news before passing on the publication to friends or neighbours; many of the printed items were accompanied by the phrase ‘this wants confirmation’ or ‘this occasions many speculations’ or ‘time will discover the event’. The affairs of the world were very uncertain.”
Here the parallel with the rise of social media is striking – and so is the difference. In order to avoid censorship or legal challenges, newspapers pursued self-regulation in regard to what they published. Codes of practice were introduced and the publisher or editor became liable. The third of the International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism reads:
“Information in journalism is understood as a social good and not as a commodity, which means that the journalist shares responsibility for the information transmitted and is thus accountable not only to those controlling the media but ultimately to the public at large, including various social interests.”
Fast forward to social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, and accountability has gone out of the window. Ordinary people – sometimes “citizen journalists” – make use of largely unregulated digital platforms to publish their views. And only in the worst excesses – when there may be criminal liability – is the owner of the digital platform required to intervene.
Speaking at the Hay on Wye Festival, the actor and writer Stephen Fry castigated social media platforms for refusing to take responsibility for defamatory or inflammatory reports, fake news, and deliberate misinformation. As reported in The Guardian (28 May 2017), he called for “Facebook and other ‘aggregating news agencies’ to be reclassified as publishers in order to stop fake news and online abuse spreading by making social media subject to the same legal responsibilities as traditional news websites.”
“At the moment, they are evading responsibility for their content as they can claim to be platforms, rather than publishers. Given that they are now a major source of news for 80% of the population, this is clearly an absurd anomaly.”
Easier said than done, but Fry is right. As a result of little gate-keeping, social media have become platforms for ignorance, defamation, hate speech, lies, and the oxymoron of post-truth. A pop-up is desperately needed saying “rumour”, “unconfirmed”, “pure speculation”, or “time will tell”, although that is to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Beyond that, social networks must face sanctions for not tackling racism, xenophobia, and hate speech, issues that end up affecting us all. In March 2017, Germany’s justice minister proposed a law that could lead to social networks being fined up to 50 million Euros for failing to delete blatantly illegal content after independent judicial review.
In Areopagitica (1642), the 17th century social commentator and poet John Milton wrote a pamphlet calling for unlicensed (meaning uncensored) printing. He argued that all published books should carry at least the printer’s name and preferably the author’s as well. That way, if any mischievous, libellous, or defamatory material were published, the books could be destroyed and the publisher held accountable.
Milton advocated “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”, tempered by a strong sense of moral responsibility. He would have been delighted by the notion of social media, but appalled by its lack of regulation. As Cole Porter lamented:
“The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…