Why did it take almost a week for Twitter to remove a British grime artist’s hateful antisemitic content? Why wasn’t it dealt with the moment it was flagged? And why are we forever asking these questions?
Wiley’s online outpourings, about Jews being “snakes” and “cowards” and comparable to the Ku Klux Klan, were posted in a two-day volley of venom to one million combined followers on sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
He was banned, first for several hours, then for several days, and finally for good, but many hateful messages stayed up for a long time. Was this ultra-mild moderation, absurdly slack internal processes, or something else?
Whatever the reason – and we may never know – this is far from the first time that the Jewish community has seen Jew hatred placed online and stay online despite complaints, and despite it appearing to contravene sites’ own policies.
A successful 48-hour boycott of Twitter by some of its most popular users did the trick. It also helped to nudge the issue all the way up to 10 Downing Street, via some very supportive MPs.
No one wants a raft of new laws if changes can be made voluntarily, and tech giants, when asked, say they are doing their best. Wiley shows they are not, or that if they are, then their best is not good enough.
Legislation and seven-figure fines have a habit of ushering in change where polite requests fail, but since 2017 we have had a Green Paper, a White Paper, a statement of intent, and a promise that by this week – how ironic – an Online Harms Bill would be introduced in Parliament. Yet MPs are on holiday, in Spain or elsewhere, and there is no Bill in sight.
Any new law should give a new or newly-empowered online regulator “real teeth” to marshal sites’ adherence to their newly-enshrined duty of care. In part, this would be through common-to-all community standards.
Crucially, the regulator must be able to fine firms that fail to uphold these standards. Whether publishers’ liability is conferred on these platforms in the process is a hot topic, and not beyond the realms of possibility.
Another MBE recipient, Danny Stone from the Antisemitism Policy Trust, has long lobbied for such a change.
For those worried about censorship, like us, consider that Facebook was recently asked why a post threatening to “bomb the Board of Deputies of British Jews” was not removed. They said it “does not go against any of our community standards”.
Time is of the essence. Technology outpaces legislation – algorithms already struggle to keep pace with things like memes – so MPs’ foot-dragging on online harm is now itself harmful.
Let’s hope lawmakers spend their 14-day quarantine wisely.