‘The Red Lion’

If social media companies were pubs, they’d be closed for running a disorderly house. They need to do a great deal more to protect users from hate and bullying.

Recent weeks have seen sports clubs use a 7-day social media boycott to highlight the abuse received by players which was again brought to light by Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford on his Twitter profile yesterday.

Marcus Rashford suffers racial abuse on social media after Europa League loss | Marcus Rashford | The Guardian

Particularly moving too was the discussion between Ian Wright and Alan Shearer where the dehumanising impact of racist abuse was laid bare:

Ian Wright and Alan Shearer discuss the impact of racist online abuse – BBC Sport

This is an all-too-familiar story and is not confined to racist abuse. The hate has taken many forms and targets can be indiscriminate. Here at Cleveland Police we deal with countless cases every year where social media is used to attack and harass members of the public.

To be clear, this is a problem that can be eradicated by social media companies who have the resources and technology to do so but they need to muster more will. How many more women need to be threatened, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people driven from platforms and children, bullied online, need to take their own lives before we say enough is enough?

The best time to have tackled this problem was when it emerged. The second-best time is now.

This blog is not to demonise social media companies. Their platforms have helped promote movements such as #MeToo and started revolutions such as the Arab Spring, broadcast live from places such as Tahir Square. It is also a valuable tool for us in raising awareness about crime, locating missing people and appealing for help from the public.

The potential social media companies have for bringing people together is incredible but the division they’ve allowed to take poisonous root may rot the whole tree.

The online world can feel ‘other-worldly’ but it isn’t; its much like any physical space so to highlight what I think needs to be a balanced response to tackle the problem, let’s reimagine a social media platform as a pub called ‘The Red Lion’.

We’ve all been there haven’t we? Sat at a table with our family at ‘The Red Lion’ in a place we feel comfortable when one person who’s had too much to drink suddenly starts to swear loudly. Most of us will look to the landlord to temper the behaviour of the rowdy guest. It’s his pub after all isn’t it?

However, the landlord of the pub (or in this analogy, social media platform) responds to complaints from customers by simply stating that all he does is provide the space to drink and platform to meet others and what people choose to do with that space is a matter for them, not him. He goes on to explain he’s employed ‘door staff’ to deal with some offenders but can’t be expected to deal with all the worst offenders.

That’s largely been the response of social media companies; a half-hearted attempt to quell the noisiest offenders whilst they continue to make a fortune. Indeed, Facebook alone posted a revenue of approximately $86 billion in 2020 with government spending on policing in the UK amounting to approximately £18 billion for the same year. Social media companies clearly have the means to fix this problem.

The vast majority of actual pubs are now very well run; it’s a commercial imperative to survive. Landlords know where the line is and they enforce it. As a result, the customers know how they must behave, or they’ll be barred. Very rarely, through no fault of the landlord, a group can get out of hand and the police need to be called to deal with the matter. However, the first line of defence needs to be the landlord (social media company) and they have a moral responsibility to act. They should not get to make money from their ‘platform’ and then ask the police to solve the problem they created.

Action by police officers should be very rare if ‘The Red Lion’ (the social media platform) is run the way it should. Social media companies have taken steps to improve but its never enough for the landlord to list the measures they’ve taken to eliminate problems at the pub if the problems persist.

Just like pubs, social media platforms can be great places to visit, where new friends can be made, old ones rediscovered and lively debates on everything from football to politics take place. We all have a responsibility to keep our voices down to a respectable level and to know that some of our behaviours may embolden less responsible people to take matters too far.

I’m not interested in shutting ‘The Red Lion’ which would spoil the fun for everybody else who does behave. I simply believe the landlord needs to do a great deal more to run a good pub where everybody feels safe and isn’t potentially going to be threatened for offering a view on something.

It isn’t much to ask social media companies who make billions to protect people from hate. They need to do much more.

Chief Constable Richard Lewis

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