Ofcom taking on the role of social media watchdog is precisely what we need to foster a safer place for brands and consumers online. But is it too little, too late?
Social media turns sweet 16 this year. I remember its birth well. Back in the heady days of the new media boom, in July 2006 to be precise, I wrote the first Wikipedia page on social media. It all took off pretty quickly after that. Quite why it’s taken this long for the UK’s media regulator to also become the social media watchdog is beyond me, and it has a colossal task on its hands.
For brands, this move is vital. A safer internet means companies can publish, engage and advertise in a much more straightforward way. In my view, far too much goes unchecked on social media. This is hugely problematic for brands, and it has to change. The news is very welcome, but Ofcom needs help.
Ofcom being given the job of social media watchdog is fraught with problems and smacks of too little, too late. Policing online harms is a critical step, but I fear the machine is moving too slow to ever catch up.
The scale of the task is the first thing to consider. According to official statistics published by Facebook in its most recent quarterly Community Standards report, during the first nine months of last year, the social network closed one million harmful accounts every hour of every day. It also deleted 15 million hate speech posts, 18 million pieces of terrorist propaganda, and 5.9 billion pieces of spam. How does a watchdog regulate something on this scale?
The scope is also a critical factor here. I fear that having a UK-only watchdog is narrow-sighted and unrealistic, as brands operate across borders. Social networks are global by design, and locally nuanced. Regulation and legislation needs to be global by design too, or the impact will be limited.
In 2019, for example, we saw Instagram announce a much-welcomed ban on images that promote self-harm. It has also started trialling certain features that reduce pressure on users to achieve metrics such as Likes – something that the CEO of Instagram has stated is a move to create a more positive environment.
On the flip side, social networks such as TikTok are pulling in the opposite direction. TikTok publishes not only view numbers of users’ posts, but also the total likes of users’ content and publishes the grand total on a user’s profile – like a social media popularity score.
TikTok may not appear quite as brand-friendly as Instagram right now, but this is a classic disruptive innovator move. TikTok will likely offer more mainstream brand content opportunities over time, so the question brands should ask here is: “what is the right time to get involved?”
What we might see here is a speed bump for brands. They may look at Ofcom’s first moves to fine social networks that break its rules and start playing it safer by avoiding the choppy waters.
We could also see brands behaving themselves more on social media, which has historically been a more experimental platform for brand marketing. Social media campaigns from brands are typically more playful and cut closer to the bone than on broadcast media, which Ofcom already regulates.
In all honesty, I’m surprised it has taken this long for the media regulator to take on social media. Ofcom has arguably the biggest catch-up job of any regulator ever seen. It’s clearly a step in the right direction, but very much a baby one, and the regulator may not have the tools immediately at its disposal to do the job required.
Brands will continue to lead the way, in creating a cleaner, safer space online. They frequently report libelous, defamatory and harmful content directly to social networks. They also have well trained, dedicated teams to engage safely with consumers.
I’m sure that Ofcom will want to work closely with experts that have emerged in the private sector, leading brands, and communication bodies, in order to assess the challenges and opportunities ahead.
In practice, the legislation itself – which is still being drafted – may well dictate what Ofcom’s role as watchdog for the internet, social media and online harms in the UK is. On that basis only time will tell whether today’s news will be a transformative one for social media.
Drew Benvie is chief executive officer of Battenhall. His TED talk: How Do We Reboot Social Media? explores the issues of safety and influence online.