Why have governments been so slow to remove illegal posts on social media?

Why have governments been so slow to remove illegal posts on social media?

When it comes to discussions about the regulation of large tech companies, ambiguity is one of the main issues that arise. How should governments decide which online content to remove, when there are so many explanations? What some hate is just the freedom of speech for others. However, these discussions often overlook the numerous posts on social media that are not obscure – and possibly objectively outrageous – and that are not regulated at all.

The Danish government announced this week that it will join a host of other European countries trying to change the status quo, by giving social media companies 24 hours to delete “illegal posts”. The announcement came on the heels of a public campaign in Denmark that began in 2018 calling for a crackdown on social media companies. She led the family of Louisa Vestrager Jespersen, a 24-year-old Danish woman who was beheaded in Morocco by Islamic State terrorists in December 2018. The video of her beheading has been repeatedly shared on Facebook, and in the past three years, her family has spoken publicly about Sending clips and images from videos by trolls and anonymous accounts.

The proposed legislation, which will be voted on next month, follows the example of countries like Germany and France, which recently passed similar laws that set deadlines and heavy fines for social media platforms that do not quickly remove content related to illegal activity (such as terrorist propaganda or drug and child trafficking). As of last month, the European Commission is making plans to criminalize certain types of social media posts.

It would be easy to view these latest developments as a victory over the big tech companies and an encouraging move by Western governments that indicate a safer internet in the future. Surely the penalties for the social media giants, who wield endless power, wealth, and control, should be lauded, especially when the atrocities of the content are so undisputedly obvious?

It is clear that allowing cut videos to circulate online is a bad thing, and it is also clear that governments should step in to remove such content if the platforms themselves do not do so. So why, if this has been a major public problem in Denmark since 2018, is the government acting only now, more than three years later, when the situation was as dire as it is today?

The timing of this legislation reveals more about the Danish government – and, more broadly, Western governments – than the specifics of the legislation itself. The proposed law has only been in the works for the past few months, when scrutiny of social media companies was at an all-time high. The release of Facebook papers by whistleblower Frances Hogan in September — during a year when the world had fallen in love with big tech companies in the wake of riots on Capitol Hill and misinformation about vaccines — meant an onslaught of bad public relations for social media companies. (Their public image is so bad that Facebook appears to have changed its company name to Meta to do damage control.) And the legislation isn’t just fairly recent: The Danish government allegedly speeded up the process ahead of a TV documentary detailing Vesterager. The Jespersen family’s experience of trolling Facebook with photos of Louisa’s death.

While any move to regulate big tech companies is a positive step, we should be wary of governments’ motives. Videos of beheadings have been a problem for nearly a decade on social media, and they’ve been discussed in the public domain since 2013. We’re only seeing real action now because it’s in the interest of these governments, and they’re doing very little to regulate. We must ask not only why now, but also what more needs to be done. Families like the Vesterager Jespersens can go through a lot of shock if governments act when problems started, not just when public opinion encourages them.

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