Heritage

Prince William Offers a Bold Condemnation of Social Media Companies at the BBC Headquarters

"Our technology companies still have a great deal to learn about the responsibilities that come with their significant power."
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES/IAN WEST - PA IMAGES
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Prince William isn't messing around.

During a visit to the BBC Headquarters this morning, the Duke of Cambridge used his platform to speak out against tech companies. Although he didn't single out any Silicon Valley darlings in particular, it can be safely assumed that he was directing his message toward Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and their compatriots.


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Will and Kate walk with Director-General of the BBC Tony and Director of BBC Children's Alice Webb

William, with Kate by his side, was ostensibly at the British broadcaster to support anti-cyberbullying efforts. But what he chose to say amounted instead to a plea to social media platforms, asking them to take responsibility for the impact they have in the world. "We not only want you to succeed," he said. "We need you to."

READ THE TRANSCRIPT IN FULL:

Thank you, Sarah. I want to start by thanking Alice Webb and her team at the BBC for their amazing work so far in developing the Own It app.

You are creating a practical, powerful tool to help children use their smartphones and social media with confidence and with safety. I am so proud that this has sprung out of the Cyberbullying Taskforce work. So thank you, Alice, and the BBC for stepping up. It’s now important that our technology partners get right behind the app to make sure all children can benefit. We’re counting on all of you.

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I’d also like to thank all of our partners on the task force – the tech companies, the ISPs, the charities, and the academic experts. The expanded Stop, Speak, Support, campaign which is now rolling out to schools across the country is just one of the things that we should be celebrating. I am so grateful to you all for the time, expertise, and resources you have contributed. It hasn’t been easy, but I believe our attempt to work collaboratively has been instructive for the rest of the world.

Now, we launched our commitments one year ago. And when we did, I told the task force members that I would be honest in assessing what we achieved and what we did not. And that’s what I’m going to do today.

To explain where I think we have got to, I want to begin by taking a step back to the early days of social media.

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Over a decade ago, when social media first became a standard part of daily life, there was so much justifiable reason for optimism.

Some of this was about personal excitement.

  • That friend we lost touch with was suddenly back in our lives.
  • The grandparent living far away was now able to keep up with the day-to-day life of the family they cared so much about.
  • The fun we had at parties, the victories we celebrated on the football pitch, the cake we ate at our child’s birthday – all of it was captured, posted and shared with our friends, making us feel closer to each other even when we were apart.

    And some of it was about the very nature of our society and culture.

    • Our politics appeared more direct and more transparent.
    • The physical distance between nations and people seemed less important
    • New ways to discover and discuss music, film, and books were appearing all the time.

      The men and women who invented and developed social media platforms are justifiably proud of the difference they have made in the world. They have achieved extraordinary things and created connections across borders, generations, and cultural divides that were unimaginable at the turn of the century.

      I believe we are stronger when we are connected and more successful when we can understand each other’s experiences.

      We all have to acknowledge, though, that much of the early optimism and hope of social media is giving way to very real concern, and even fear about its impact on our lives.

      We have seen that the technology that can allow you to develop an online community around a shared hobby or interest can also be used to organize violence.

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      The platform that can allow you to celebrate diversity can also be used to cocoon yourself in a cultural and political echo chamber.

      The new ways we have to access news from across the world are also allowing misinformation and conspiracy to pollute the public sphere.

      The tools that we use to congratulate each other on milestones and successes can also be used to normalize speech that is filled with bile and hate.

      The websites we use to stay connected can for some create profound feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

      And the apps we use to make new friends can also allow bullies to follow their targets even after they have left the classroom or the playing field.

      It is this issue of cyberbullying that we have come here to discuss today. As we do, however, I believe it is crucial that we see the connections across all of these challenges.

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      Over the last few years working with the Cyberbullying Taskforce, it has become clear to me that the men and women who lead social media companies are motivated by the right things – the value of connection, friendship, family, and knowledge. But as this list of unintended consequences grows, a culture of defensiveness is undermining the sector’s relationship with the public.

      To explain what I mean, it’s important to share my experience.

      I convened the Cyberbullying Taskforce not because I had any expertise in technology policy – I do not and I have never pretended to.

      I convened the Taskforce because I was a new parent. And I saw that my friends and peers were seriously worried about the risks of the very powerful tools we were putting in our children’s hands. For too many families, phones and social media shattered the sanctity and protection of the home.

      As we grappled with this we felt a distinct absence of guidance.

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      Should we read our children’s messages?

      Should we allow them to have phones and tablets in their rooms?

      Who do we report bullying to?

      We were making up the rules as we went along.

      And when I worked as an Air Ambulance pilot or traveled around the country campaigning on mental health, I met families who had suffered the ultimate loss. For too many, social media and messaging were supercharging the age-old problem of bullying, leaving some children to take their own lives when they felt it was inescapable.

      I felt that I might be able to make a difference on this issue. I did not have the answers, but I did have the ability to invite the brightest leaders and researchers in social media to sit around the table, to listen to parents and children, and see what we might do together to make the online world safer and happier for our young people.

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      What I found very quickly though was that the sector did not want to own this issue.

      I heard doubts being cast about the scale of the problem.

      I was told that companies were already doing plenty and just needed more credit for it.

      I saw denials about the age of young children on some of our most popular platforms.

      And crucially I heard over and over again that a collective approach – across the industry, with charity partners, ISPs, researchers, and parents – just wouldn’t work. The individual platforms were just too different and user expectations too complicated to try to come up with common tools that could be easily understood by children, parents, and teachers.

      So a year ago, when it came time to launch a series of commitments that the sector would make on this issue, I announced a plan of action that I freely admitted did not go as far as I hoped.

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      Now it did include some very positive things – a joint awareness campaign, new guidelines for reporting bullying, and a pilot for a shared emotional support platform. A year on though, even those modest commitments have not been implemented with the enthusiasm I would have hoped for.

      And while I am grateful that today we are announcing that the emotional support platform and the Stop, Speak, Support campaign will get fresh energy, I am disappointed that we are ending our taskforce collaboration without a real, collective sense of pride about what we have achieved.

      Now I will admit I have learned plenty through this process about how I can best lead similar endeavors in the future. I underestimated the scale of the challenge that this process would represent. I may have been too ambitious and I may have needed to look again at who we brought to the table.

      I am worried though that our technology companies still have a great deal to learn about the responsibilities that come with their significant power.

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      I say this not in anger. Again, I believe that our tech leaders are people of integrity who are bringing many benefits to our lives and societies.

      I am very concerned though that on every challenge they face – fake news, extremism, polarisation, hate speech, trolling, mental health, privacy, and bullying – our tech leaders seem to be on the back foot.

      Their self-image is so grounded in their positive power for good that they seem unable to engage in constructive discussion about the social problems that they are creating.

      The journey from inventors in the student dormitory to the leaders of some of the most valuable companies on earth has been so fast that they may struggle to understand that their incentives have changed. The noise of shareholders, bottom lines, and profits is distracting them from the values that made them so successful in the first place.

      They are so proud of what they have built that they cannot hear the growing concern from their users.

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      And increasingly they seemed resigned to a posture with governments and regulators that will be defined by conflict and discord.

      It does not have to be this way.

      Social media companies have done more to connect the world than has ever been achieved in human history. Surely you can connect with each other about smart ways to deal with the unintended consequences of these connections.

      You have made so many of our institutions engage directly with the people they serve. Surely you can build a new relationship with your own users that is based on service, community, humility, and transparency.

      You have powered amazing movements of social change. Surely together you can harness innovation to allow us to fight back against the intolerance and cruelty that has been brought to the surface by your platforms.

      And you have brought families together in ways that were previously unimaginable. Surely you can partner with parents to make the online world a safe place of discovery, friendship, and education for their children.

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      You can reject the false choice of profits over values. You can choose to do good and be successful.

      You can work in the interest of the children and parents who use your products and still make your shareholders happy.

      We not only want you to succeed. We need you to.

      Thank you.

      This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
      * Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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