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UK public backs limits on ‘legal but harmful’ content online

Anti-Abuse campaign group Hopes not to Hate, along with other groups, has conducted research showing that social media companies are not trusted by the public to tackle the problem of online abuse and hateful content. The survey also found a majority in favor of more regulation for technology companies.

The investigation involved Hope, not Hate, Demos, and the Antisemitism Policy Trust, among others. The study involved more than 1,500 people who were weighted to be representative of the British public.

It identified online abuse as a major public concern, with 73 percent saying they are concerned about the amount of this content on social media.

A large majority (74 percent) of respondents said they don’t trust social media companies alone to decide what constitutes extreme content or misinformation when it appears on their platforms. There is strong public support for stricter regulations forcing these companies to take action against harmful content, with 71 percent agreeing that they should be held legally responsible for user-generated content on their platforms and 73 percent agreeing that they should be forced to remove malicious content when it appears on their platforms.

The government’s much-anticipated online safety law, which would give platforms a legal duty of care to its users and heavy financial fines for failing to comply with this duty of care, is set to be examined by lawmakers this month after delays. The proposals include plans to push platforms to identify content that is “legal but harmful”, such as celebrating self-mutilation and suicide and anonymous bullying.

The Hope, not Hate survey suggests strong public support for these measures. 80 percent of those polled stated that while they believe in free speech, limits should be set to prevent the spread of extremist content online. The report highlights legal obligations for broadcast media regarding “legal but harmful” content, such as under the Communications Act of 2003, which gives Ofcom the duty to set standards for program content.

As for specific types of harmful content, only nine percent of respondents want racist content to be allowed on social media (eight percent for specifically anti-Semitic content, including Holocaust denial), eight percent for homophobic content, and nine percent for sexist content.

“Allowing people to spread hateful and offensive content online is not a way to protect free speech, but rather it risks creating division and amplifying the despicable views of a small minority,” said Joe Mulhall, head of research at Hope, not Hate. “Right now, online speech that causes division and harm is often defended on the basis that removing it would undermine freedom of expression.

“In reality, allowing the amplification of such speech will only degrade the quality of public discourse and harm the groups that have such speech targets. This defense minimizes, in theory, and in practice, freedom of expression in general. As our poll shows, there is clearly an overwhelming consensus that hateful content, even if it is legal, is too visible on social media platforms.

“The only way to truly ensure that everyone has freedom of expression is to protect anyone who is currently being attacked or marginalized on the basis of characteristics such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. Therefore, continuing to include legal but harmful content in the Online Safety Bill is the best way to ensure that social media companies have effective systems and processes in place to reduce the promotion of hate and abuse while preserving freedom of expression.”

The report states: “Those who condemn the bill on the grounds of freedom of expression underestimate the potential for social inequalities to be reflected in public discourse, and ignore the nature and magnitude of these inequalities in the ‘marketplace of ideas. As such, the position of some “freedom of expression” proponents may be paradoxical. They claim to be committed to valuing free speech above all else, promoting an unequal debate that further undermines the free speech of those already harmed by social inequalities.

“Some of those currently advocating the removal of legal but harmful content from this legislation instead propose criminalizing expressions that are currently legal — a proposal that may run counter to the goal of preserving free speech. .”