Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage


4:17 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Bill, which has many worthy aspects. I will touch on some parts that, though they may not necessarily be problematic, certainly require further discussion.

I welcome the Minister's statements on some of the amendments she has tabled since the discussion in the Seanad, especially to do with the addition of the youth advisory committee. I hope the Government understands the particular importance of listening to young voices on online safety. No matter how much research we conduct about social media we will never achieve the level of online fluency those born in the past 25 years have achieved just by growing up in a digital age. Like a foreign language, we could spend ten years studying it but there will still be terms and context that we do not understand and problematic dog whistles that do not translate. If I was making policy in that language, I could miss out on messaging that could cause harm. Online trends change like the weather and it can be difficult to dig into the pitfalls of a passing fad before it is gone. Only those who have tuned in day in and day out can spot and sometimes even pre-empt the dangers of emerging discourse. It is for this reason the commission's work on social media should be shaped by experts in that field. Those experts should be aged under 25 and the membership should constantly evolve to keep people of a young age on it. The youth advisory committee cannot be tokenistic. It must be taken seriously or we risk being a step behind when safety concerns arise.

It is all well and good speaking about future online dangers and how we might deal with them but anyone who spends time on TikTok, Instagram or any other Meta platform or Twitter will say kids are being exposed to dangers every time they turn on their phones. We must stop speaking in hypotheticals about what might happen to a child online without safeguards and discuss the harsh realities they experience for countless hours, potentially each day. As an example, if many parents of young children were asked what exactly TikTok constitutes, they would say it is where users post dances. They are unaware the platform harbours hundreds of thousands of different communities and trends and that some of them are harmful. Some of us might remember that in the early 2010s there was another social media platform called Tumblr that was all over the news for hosting content encouraging eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia, and countless children and teenagers fell into those online communities. It was incredibly detrimental at the time. The prevalence and severity of the content got so bad the company was forced to take a harder stance on moderation in 2012. This resulted in users and communities that promoted eating disorders being removed and moving to other platforms. In the past couple of years, video-based apps have seen a spike in what is described as pro-anorexia messaging and no matter their efforts to ban this content, there remains a high volume of videos on these platforms that could have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of young and older people around the country. Even seemingly harmless "Get ready with me" or "Choose my outfit" videos frequently contain "body checking", where creators place an emphasis on viewing their body, their shape and their weight from different angles. Sometimes this is under the guise of showing off clothes. Though some creators mean no harm in making videos in this style, children and young people around the country are being bombarded with countless videos each day where there body is the subject, where their shape is under scrutiny and where standards are unrealistic and simply unattainable.

It is extremely difficult to moderate content that hides its messaging and, therefore, we must provide educational resources to make users or their parents aware of the effects of those trends. These examples are covert but explicit and extreme examples of those trends can still be easily accessed online via certain hashtags that evolve as they are banned. This gives us another reason to listen to those who use the platform every day to warn about their potential dangers. Eating disorders and body image is only one of thousands of issues this commission will have to tackle on social media. Other examples include what is described as the alt right where violent messaging is rampant. This often indoctrinates young people who are in vulnerable circumstances.

Misinformation and disinformation are growing at an unprecedented rate, leading to kids being influenced by bad actors online. It is still easy to accidentally stumble upon violent or sexually explicit content on platforms which claim to ban it. I am sure they do but it just evolves too quickly. I would like to understand how the Bill we are bringing through will address that.

We all represent constituents who do not know how some of these apps work and do not know how to speak to their kids about the experience of them. I would certainly like to see the commission commit to an education campaign informed by the youth advisory committee which would inform parents and guardians of how exactly these apps work. Aside from the functionality, the campaign should address and explain trends and terms that parents may not understand so that they may identify if or when their child has been exposed to content that can be harmful. A once-off public service announcement in the form of a pamphlet or online campaign simply would not be effective. The commission should provide frequent updates whenever harmful trends are identified online so that users, parents and guardians can protect their children from being harmed or misled.

Education is essential because social media companies often fall short of moderating content that may be dangerous. It is the platform's responsibility to enforce its own rules and protect its users. It is essential that we engage with the likes of TikTok, Instagram and Twitter to ensure they are committed to keeping their content safe. Their standards right now are simply not good enough. To give one example, I was made aware earlier this year of a trend where teenagers were attacking people on the street so that they could film it and post it to social media. This phenomenon was organised and cultivated on popular video-based platforms and footage was hosted for an unacceptable length of time before being addressed by the companies in question. I actually did have a positive experience when I reached out to TikTok and received a positive response from them. That was one welcome example. The commission must constantly be on the lookout for harmful trends like this one, which resulted in teenagers ending up in hospital with head injuries. It must efficiently engage with companies to take down the content immediately as it is happening.

It is important to keep in mind that content moderation is not an easy job, far from it. Staff who are employed to sort through often disturbing imagery and footage require much better supports. We are all aware of some companies advertising roles completely unrelated to content moderation only for staff, once hired, to be stuck sorting through violence, racism and sexually explicit content for hours on end. It is an extraordinarily unforgiving job that takes a serious toll on mental health. Social media companies have a responsibility to provide for their employees. It must be ensured that these staff receive free counselling services, that they are given adequate breaks and that their contracts are fair. This is not work anyone can do for hours on end without it affecting their health in the most detrimental ways.

Social media can be an excellent tool for creativity, togetherness, entertainment and indeed for education. We witnessed many of those positive aspects throughout the pandemic. However, we must be alert to the pitfalls and protect those who are at greater risk of damage. I fully believe the Minister is taking this issue seriously. I welcome the Bill and look forward to working with her as it progresses.


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