The Council’s Take
Everybody else but us to blame for online harms on our platforms
The proliferation of digital harms and the subsequent lack of responsibility for the same by social media companies can occasion significant negative impacts on individuals and society as a whole. At an individual level, people may be subjected to various forms of harms, abuses, harassment and disinformation leading to psychological distress, damage to reputation, and even physical harm.
It is however at wider societal level that the effect of harmful online content is most felt. This is because online harms including disinformation can have a destabilizing effect on society, leading to increased social tensions, political polarization, and even violence as is already evident in a number of countries. In addition, the subsequent lack of trust in information undermines democratic institutions and processes. Furthermore, online harms also have an adverse impact on the economy, whether through fraud and scams or damage to reputation of businesses and even whole economies.
There are various ploys employed by social media companies to avoid responsibility including lobbying and political influence; discrediting evidence; litigation and legal maneuvers; self-regulation and public relations campaigns.
The avoidance of responsibility for online harms by these companies is often driven by a desire to maximize profits and avoid regulatory scrutiny. It is also fueled by a paternalistic colonial attitude towards markets like those of Kenya and Africa more generally.
This does not however mean that there has not been pressure from users, government agencies and civil society for better digital protection. Increasingly, there is awareness in Kenya and elsewhere that digital harms are caused not so much by nefarious actors as the platforms would like us to believe, but primarily by platform business models that privilege profits above all else. In a survey commissioned by the Council for Responsible Social Media in 2023, 79% of social media users in Kenya expressed the opinion that social media companies were responsible for causing harm through mis/disinformation and fake news. Further, 74% opined that the companies should be regulated more than was currently the case. In a similar study conducted in 2022, 59% preferred government to step in and regulate these companies without overreaching.
It is the Council’s position that social media companies must take more proactive measures to address online harms in the Kenyan market. Such measures include addressing their faulty business models that amplify harm, robust content moderation, adequate safety investments and proper attention to understand the African market including its context and nuances. Additionally, governments, regulatory bodies and civil society should hold social media companies accountable for their actions and ensure concrete and sustainable steps are undertaken to mitigate online harms. One of the ways to ensure that platforms are accountable for their actions is to support tripartite dialogues involving civil society, governments and the platforms themselves in order to develop mitigation measures that are contextual and sustainable.