Published on 30 September 2022
The death of 14-year-old Molly Russell has sped up demands for increased online safety.
Last week an inquest found social media content contributed "more than minimally" to the schoolgirl taking her own life in 2017.
Coroner Andrew Walker concluded Molly, from Harrow, died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content.
He said the images of self-harm and suicide she viewed "shouldn't have been available for a child to see".
Here, Dr Derek Watson, Associate Professor in Cultural Management at the University of Sunderland, discusses how the teenager’s death, and the rumblings of impending legal actions may be the tech giants’ biggest challenge to date.
“Private social media companies are thriving in a lucrative digital world, that is in the main, unregulated and arbitrary.
“In consequence, companies operate within a culture of self-styled codes of practice which are failing to effectively audit harmful social media postings, from both vulnerable and well-educated users, thus, fuelling the growing frustration, that there is a widening disconnect between legislators and social media companies.
“The tragic case of Molly Russell who took her own life at the age of 14, is a sobering and worrying reminder that whilst social media companies provide a portal of information and endless opportunities to learn, they equally enable easy access to disturbing and harmful content, the consequences of which have been associated with suicides, the second leading cause of deaths among those aged 10 – 34.
“Friday’s damming inquest judgement into Molly’s suicide reignited calls for urgent reform from the Samaritans, a watershed opportunity by the NSPPC and a social media tweet of concern from the Prince of Wales.
“The growing momentum for change is also directed at the ‘Online Safety Bill’, which is currently ebbing its way through the House of Commons. However, pressure is mounting as the Bill must successfully complete its parliamentary passage by May 2023 to avoid a stop the clock scenario.
“But the implications are not restricted to the UK, as evidenced in Silicon Valley where tech companies are being stalked by prospecting legal firms planning to trigger a tobacco style ‘Class Action’ against those companies who may be complicit in their failings associated with responsive content management.
“There is also increased debate on whether the censorship and the break-up of social media giants would ease their assumed power grip over our lives.
“The process is clearly complex in endeavouring to address the rapid pace of social media and how to legally address ‘what is harmful but legal’ and providing an agreed definition around the philosophical mooting of the term, legally harmful.
“The importance in respecting freedom of speech is equally contentious in identifying what is malicious as opposed to a genuine cry for help. Furthermore, the Bill needs to effectively factor out tech giants’ so called wiggle room or loopholes.
“Under the watchful eye of the Office for Communication (Ofcom), it is anticipated that the Bill will act as a catalyst to instigate a positive cultural change as tech companies will be required to demonstrate that their policies are fit for purpose and can be audited by Ofcom’s 300 strong staff.
“Those individuals who fail to demonstrate compliance or provide false statements may indeed be criminally held to account. Both the political parties, and the public, are mindful of the escalating profits tech companies generate and their expressions for compromise due to an apparent short fall in staffing fail to gain sympathy and further tarnishing their reputational trust.
“To conclude, the Online Safety Bill is a vehicle to drive much needed regulated change within tech giant sector, who are failing to reassure the global digital community that they have the necessary systems and leadership tenacity to ensure that they can independently manage digital content and in doing so help protect the vulnerable.
“Whilst the correlation between ‘harmful’ social media and suicides is yet to be validated, globally, social media usage continues an upward trajectory, and the levels of self-harming and suicides are evidenced all too often.
“Recent comments by tech giants stating that they are committed to listening to stakeholders fail to reassure politicians, parents, and users, the corollary of which may indeed see the imposed break up of tech giants’ cultural infrastructures and the onset of ‘Class Action Lawsuits’.”