New “snapshot of public opinion” on Online Harms published by Demos - some quick reflections
Last week, Demos published some valuable new research which presents “a snapshot of public opinion” towards Online Harms, which they conducted in partnership with telecoms company BT. The research consisted of some quantitative opinion polling supplemented by a couple of qualitative focus groups, and covers 3 areas: what online harms are people most concerned about, how do they feel about the trade-offs between different rights online, and who do they think is responsible for taking action.
Overall, the report provides strong evidence of public concern about online harms, of appetite for the government to bring forward legislation as part of efforts to tackle the problem, and for that legislation to include action to tackle “legal but harmful content”. It also demonstrates that the public is able to take a fairly sophisticated perspective on the problems, challenges, and trade-offs inherent in developing regulation in this area. Citizens expect their government to step up and play its part, but they also appreciate that it’s a complex task and that there’s no magic bullet. Much of the report explores the differences between the views of different sections of the public- but the data also indicates a striking degree of consensus across different age groups, areas of the UK, and political viewpoint.
53% of poll respondents state direct personal experience of online harms. The report’s authors highlight that there were “much higher levels of concern than experience” and that “the harms which cause the most concern are not those which cause the most experience”. However, it seems fairly typical for concern about a social problem to extend beyond just those who directly experience it (e.g. less than 2% of the population fall victim to a violent crime each year, and a majority of those experience the most minor category of "violence without injury", but public concern about violent crime is far higher than that). If anything, it seems more notable just how widespread is direct experience of online harms.
There is some level of correlation between increasing age and increasing levels of concern. For example only 72% of 18-24 year olds think children watching violence and pornography online is a “big problem for society”, rising up the age brackets to 87% for those over 60. The report’s authors suggest that this could be due to younger respondents being an “online generation” who are more likely to be “digital natives”, more appreciative of the benefits being online or desensitised to its downsides. But whilst there are some interesting differences between the generations the report also finds a significant amount of concern across all age-groups. Digging into the polling tables, it’s clear that this concern about children accessing violent or sexual content cuts across gender (85% amongst women, 80% amongst men) different social classes (83% amongst ABC1s; 82% among C2DEs), regions (intriguingly, levels of concern are slightly lower in the English midlands, at 74%, but over 80% everywhere else) and by voting history (83% Conservatives, 80% Labour, 77% SNP)
The report finds support for what it terms a “cross-sector approach to tackling online harms” - with individual users, internet companies, and government all seen as needing to take responsibility. Some variations are identified in how responsibility is attributed depending on the nature of the harms - for example at the upper end, 86% of respondents think the government has responsibility for tackling “serious illegal activity”, whereas at the lower end only 75% attribute such responsibility to the government when comes to age inappropriate content. However, a large proportion of people (at least 75%) think individuals, platforms, and government should all take responsibility across all the different types of harms listed.
Something which may be helpful to explore in more detail in future research is the interplay between the responsibility attributed to each of these 3 categories of actor. The report’s authors hint at this when they note that parents are more likely than non-parents to think the government has some responsibility for age inappropriate content, “perhaps reflecting the difficulty of the task”. If one of the actors listed is failing in their responsibilities, making it too hard for others to fulfil theirs, who does the public think should step in? Clean up the Internet’s polling from a few months earlier found 80% support for the government imposing fines “if abuse happens on social media companies, and those companies are found to have not taken enough action to combat it”. It would have been interesting to have included in this research some similar questions about what role the government should be playing in enforcing the responsibilities of other actors.
There’s clear potential to build a public consensus in favour of Clean up the Internet’s position that action is needed to tackle harms associated with anonymity, whilst safeguarding its legitimate uses. The opinion polling demonstrates that the public recognise the significant role which anonymity plays in fuelling harms. 65% of respondents agreed with the statement that “harmful behaviour conducted by anonymous internet users means that everyone should have to use their real names to access services”. This suggests support for something approaching an outright “ban”, which Clean up the Internet would not support. In the polling tables some variations emerge - 7% more women than men “feel strongly” in favour of enforcing "real names", as do 12% more Conservative than Labour voters. But, once again, a solid majority appear to agree with the statement in favour of "real names" across all regions and nations of the UK, all age groups, and all political affiliations.
The focus groups helpfully provide some additional insights into the nuances within this overall scepticism towards anonymity. Alongside a common awareness that misuse of anonymity drives harmful behaviours, as the topic was explored there was also an appreciation that anonymity has legitimate uses and the excessive restrictions could have downsides. This suggests that whilst currently there is strong majority support for something amounting to an outright ban on anonymity, in practice levels of support for any ban could dip after implementation as the downsides became clearer. An approach which seeks to balance restrictions on the misuse of anonymity, alongside safeguarding its more legitimate uses in order to protect freedom of expression, could prove more popular in the long term.
Overall, this research should provide encouragement to the government as it prepares to finally bring forward its long-awaited Online Harms legislation. It’s fair for the report flag that “different groups feel differently” about what balances the legislation should strike, and that there are some “concerns and divisions” amongst different parts of the public. But at a time when political opinion on many other issues is highly polarised, this research actually reveals an unusual level of consensus. Sure, older generations support tougher action by a larger majority than younger generations - but a pretty large majority of voters support pretty tough action across all generations. Particularly if the government follows the report’s advice to involve the public as the legislation is developed and implemented, they have an opportunity to deliver something which will be popular across the political spectrum.