Sunday, February 5News For London

Trolling is the new normal – How will the Online Safety Bill regulate it?

©Paul-Hudson Erwin

The use of social media has become heavily ingrained in our society, often without much consideration for online safety and privacy. The Online Safety Bill, which originated in the House of Commons, aims at regulating online communication offences more effectively.

“I use it for everything,” said Emily, a student at University College London. From daily news to connecting with friends and posting personal photos; billions of users access Instagram and TikTok everyday.

The Internet has claimed its place in today’s society, bringing countless concerns and worries about its safety. “I am always conscious that whatever I post can be seen by anyone,” said Julia, 22, expressing her fears about the lack of privacy. “Everyone is being surveilled in one way or another,” added another student at the University of Westminster, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Gen Z are very aware of the risks they expose themselves to when using social media. However, having grown up in this digital age, this demographic has become increasingly desensitised to the consequences of online offences.          

When asked about the bill, all of our interviewees from the younger demographic said that they hadn’t heard anything about it. This presents a danger as they are the main target for what the bill is attempting to tackle.                                                                                                           

Throughout discussions about the Online Safety Bill, a dangerous habit seems to be growing within UK youth. According to the Avast Foundation, 64 percent of 16 to 24-year-old Britons have engaged in offensive behavior online. Furthermore, the older users get, the less likely they are to post intentionally offensive content.

“I definitely have been exposed to it. But I haven’t paid it much attention,” affirmed a 20-year-old student when talking about trolling and coming across disturbing content. It is just not as shocking anymore.

The Online Safety Bill was mainly sparked as a result of 14-year-old Molly Russell’s tragic story. She took her own life in 2017 after viewing graphic content on social media. Although her death triggered this bill, there has not been much publicity surrounding the government’s efforts to make the Internet a safer place.

Some young people who were directly involved in unpleasant online situations as children are much more likely to inform and protect themselves. Julia witnessed her sister’s identity being stolen by some user online stating that: “There was someone going around and literally pretending to be her. After that, I put my profile on private and started to be much more selective with whom I accepted.”

In many ways, these wrongdoings are an invisible threat that GenZ’s have to face online. Anyone can hide behind a screen, effectively separating their identity from their actions.

Emily, 21, shares an alarming experience she had with a stalker online: “He would not leave me alone and I think he kept creating new accounts because he was always asking the same thing.”

The immediacy that social media offers in creating countless profiles is worrying on different levels. Many hope that the bill will lead the way to tackle it. 

As shown by the layout of the Online Safety Bill on the Government website, one of the regulations requires platforms to provide users with tools to have more control over who sees their content and who they interact with online.

This responds to the concern of a lack of accountability from social media users. As easy as it is to create multiple accounts, it overlooks any identity verification. How can you tell that someone is who they say they are online? 

The answer is simple: it’s not easy to tell. 

Just like Louise, some people just don’t use social media for personal reasons.“I have a business account on Instagram in order to sell my artwork,” she explained. “But I don’t own a personal account.” 

That does not seem to present any danger, until most users start hiding behind anonymous accounts without disclosing their identity.

With threats such as stalking and hacking among many others, is it any wonder that a lot more people are private with their information these days? Yet the lack of accountability only makes it easier to troll other users.

In conjunction with trolling, adults and teens are unexpectedly subject to harmful content much too often, as found in a 2020 study by Statista.  

Both Twitter and Instagram operate with a blue checkmark to differentiate influential users of the apps. 

But when tech billionaire and head of Twitter, Elon Musk, introduced Twitter Blue, it rendered the verification check mark meaningless. All users can now subscribe to get a blue verification tick for £8.99 a month. When you can’t tell who is a real celebrity and who isn’t, what hope is there for unverified accounts? 

With the free circulation of any online content, social media can be extremely murky waters. There is no way of verifying everyone or really, anyone.

The rise of deepfakes and false accounts has, in part, been enabled by how easily photos can be downloaded to one’s own device. The convincing nature of deepfakes can prove dangerous as they can push a false truth about an individual or set of people.

The Online Safety Bill is hoping to tackle these issues.

Most Gen Xers and Boomers aren’t concerned with their social media profiles – in fact when questioned most won’t openly admit that they use social media.

It’s impossible to not be on social media these days. However, users from older generations mostly use WhatsApp to contact family members and friends. The constant need to be on social media despite safety concerns is not a sentiment they match.

Lawrence, a will and inheritance writer, said: “You know, I’m one of these people who thinks you don’t have to be on social media in the first place. I think it’s the young person’s thing. I don’t fully understand it, to be honest.”

This disconnect from the necessity of social media that many younger people have is a benefit to the older generations. They don’t grow as attached to an online presence and are not afraid to have private accounts and limited access, or even shut down their accounts completely.

This can be a strength when experiencing online abuse or trolling, as many including those from the older generations have experienced.

Carl, an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, recalled some online abuse he received and what his response was.

“I’ve had some aggression directed towards me by Tories and Brexiters. Also some anti-Welsh sentiment from British nationalists…” He added: “I try to avoid commenting on things these days. In fact I deleted my Facebook account because of it.”

The Online Safety Bill will give adults greater tools to moderate the content they see on their feeds as well as to “block anonymous trolls.” Adults will be able to use these tools to determine whether random social media accounts can message them, hopefully lowering the amount of abuse and trolling people like Carl have received on various platforms.

Lawrence’s experience on the Daily Mail website when following up on the latest football news wasn’t pleasant, either. “You look at some of the comments on that [and] you feel as though you need to go and take a shower after you’ve read it.”

Changing social media platforms to regulate the online hate and trolling that comes hurdling out daily is necessary, those from the older generations said. The solutions aren’t clear – but going through with the Online Safety Bill seems to be a starting point.

Francis, an occupational therapist, has seen the worst of it and says dramatic action must be taken. “Another way is to take away the phone, but the children cannot be exposed to [harmful content]. They cannot.”

Lawrence feels that the solution lies in the hands of the government, who need to press social media companies more. “Well, the solution is to get tough…take [social media companies] offline until they get their act together and then regulate the people on it.”

He compares this issue to the way China handles their social media and thinks the same could be done here. “You only have to look at China. You know, they can stop social media. Altogether, they’ve got the technology to cut it out. And if they were serious, they could do it in this country.”

It was long overdue for the government to propose a bill, and now they can take action to improve the safety of everyone who uses social media before it does any more harm. The older generations are adamant about this because they see what’s happening to their kids.

Natasha, who works in the Student Centre here at Westminster, said: “It is worrying as a parent, you’re thinking what are they looking at? And what are they exposed to? I think companies should be thinking about that a lot more.”

When asked how she feels about privacy, she said, “Personally, I’m always private, you know, even [my] Instagram [is] on private.” She stated that she would rather be friends with people she knows personally. “ I’d just rather keep my privacy,” she reiterated.

As much as younger generations have not regarded the possibility of this Online Safety Bill, they certainly need it. So far, social media has only relied on individuals to monitor their experiences, restrict their own content and block trolls. 

Charlie, a social media executive, said: “I almost feel like this bill was made by people who don’t use social media.” While she agrees with the measures in theory, she does not believe in their practicality, as she fears it will restrict freedom of expression. 

A main concern about regulating social media and holding the platforms more accountable is that it will result in a standardised process. As social media exists in an online and abstract space, tracking down and keeping people from repeating acts of trolling remains a challenge. 

Furthermore, respecting cultural and personal differences in what type of expression is to be considered inappropriate is also a major point of contention. Taking all of these aspects into consideration, the question of what applies when and how that is decided comes up.

Something that might be socially acceptable in one country might not be in another.

The Online Safety Bill proposes actions that appear good in theory, should be heavily considered and are a definite positive step in the right direction towards a safer online presence.

Yet, it does not seem as effective when put in practice.

A main argument for the Bill is that it sparks a conversation that is necessary for change. It presents a good step towards a safer online experience but does not seem to be all-encompassing.

The best means of protection is still to look out for one’s own safety and be mindful of social media’s risks.