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13 January 2021

First Thoughts: Platforms as publishers, UK Covid deaths and the radical history of Essex

The argument for making Twitter and other social media sites accountable for their content is compelling – and the solution could be charging users to post. 

By Peter Wilby

It is all very well for Twitter to ban Donald Trump after years of profiting from the millions of eyes drawn towards his frequently incendiary tweets. But the argument for making Twitter and other social media sites accountable for their content is compelling. They contend they are platforms or channels of communication, not publishers. They are not responsible for what they carry any more than the Royal Mail or Virgin is responsible for the contents of letters or phone calls. That is piffle. Mail and telecoms businesses do not receive revenue from advertising but from customers paying for their services.

Social media companies argue that, if they had to employ thousands of lawyers and moderators to filter out libel, racism, hate, violence and other illegal or deeply offensive content, their business models would collapse. Tough. Their business models are precisely the problem. The more outrageous and addictive the content, the more eyeballs the sites attract and the more advertising they sell. Algorithms identify the customers most receptive to toxic material.

Social media sites should charge users to post (but not to view) content, just as telecoms companies charge for calls and texts. We shall be told that this is impracticable. If so, somebody should make it practicable.

[see also: Ban Donald Trump’s Twitter account – for good]

Top of the table

The UK is now seventh in the international league table of Covid-19 deaths per million people, having just overtaken Spain and Peru. We are fast closing the gap on Italy – the only country with a population of more than 20 million that is ahead of us – as well as on North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We may even overtake Belgium, currently top of the table. But it is, as the football commentators would say, a game of two halves. If the government’s vaccination programme succeeds, we may well end the pandemic with one of the better records.

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Treating death rates as though they were football scores may be in bad taste and, since countries’ records vary in reliability, is probably unfair. But if the figures do turn out in the UK’s favour, expect Boris Johnson and his ministers to make the most of them and talk of little else during the next election campaign.

An eastern refuge

Why does Essex have some of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country? Perhaps because – contrary to the stereotypes of “Essex man”, once defined as the “mildly brutish and culturally barren” creature who voted for Thatcher, and “Essex girl”, obsessed with tanning salons and bling – it has always harboured strains of radicalism and anarchism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Essex nurtured modernist architecture and utopian communes, punk bands and naturist colonies, industrial worker estates and anarchists inspired by Tolstoy. Britain’s first naturist society, for example, was founded in Wickford, 30 miles east of London, in 1924. More recently, thousands of working-class East Enders were decanted to Essex council estates after bombing destroyed their homes.

The county is not so much a suburb of London, like Surrey, as a refuge from the capital. I have no evidence that its inhabitants, of whom I am one, are less likely to observe, say, social distancing than anyone else. But they are nonconformists, instinctively mistrustful of authority in general and governments in particular, especially those that can’t act decisively or explain themselves clearly. 

[see also: Why Essex is England’s most misunderstood county]

What Whitehorn did

Feminism was barely a rumour when Katharine Whitehorn, who has died aged 92, started her Observer column in 1963. She often recalled how David Astor, the paper’s editor and owner, wrestled with a painful dilemma over women’s pages. Only a wife and mother, he thought, could understand women’s issues. But his strong view was that a wife and mother should not be writing, still less editing, and rather staying at home looking after her family. As Whitehorn told it, he appointed George Seddon, a gay man (albeit married with children), as women’s page editor as “a sort of compromise”. And it was Seddon who hired her, a move with which Astor was never entirely happy, seeing her vigorous column as evidence of “penis envy”. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war