Is it possible to make the online world safer?

28 Jun 2023

Aoife Barry. Image: Elaine Burke

Journalist and author Aoife Barry joins the latest episode of For Tech’s Sake to talk about the good and the bad of social media and how it’s moderated.

Do you use the internet responsibly? How ‘online’ would you consider yourself to be? Are your bad social media habits in check?

Social media can connect us, divide us, entertain us and enrage us. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to name but a few, have all played host to wonderful communities and discussions but have also been a breeding ground for misinformation, toxicity and harassment.

One notable warning given in recent years came from world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee who said, “the web is not working for women and girls”, in an open letter to mark the 31st anniversary of its creation.

Discussions about social media’s negative impacts and questions around online safety have increased in recent years and last week, Ireland’s first online safety commissioner Niamh Hodnett spoke to about her plans going forward.

She listed online content promoting things like toxic beauty standards, cyberbullying and violence against women as having a considerable and demonstrable negative impact on children’s development.

That said, Hodnett doesn’t want to be overly prescriptive when it comes to protecting minors. “I’m very conscious as a parent that it shouldn’t be just us telling children what we think is right for them to be safe online, particularly older children.”

We’d love if online spaces were made safer and better moderated to keep the nasty parts at bay, and outside of regulators and commissions, that can often be the role of content moderators – a job that can be full of its own difficulties.

But in the end, it often comes down to how we moderate ourselves, with some people understandably pulling back from their digital lives just to protect themselves.

To delve into this topic further, For Tech’s Sake hosts Jenny Darmody and Elaine Burke spoke to Aoife Barry, a journalist and author of Social Capital: Life Online in the Shadow of Ireland’s Tech Boom.

Everything in moderation

In our discussion, Barry spoke about her own relationship with the online world. “As a freelance journalist now, I want potential employers to see me and to know what I’m doing. I want to show I made a good decision,” she said.

“But sometimes I don’t feel like putting stuff online. Sometimes I don’t want to be on the internet. Sometimes I don’t want to be visible. And that kind of visibility question is an ongoing one, I think, for people.”

She also talked about her own work as a content moderator – a mod – in another life and how that grew into the job of content moderation that we’re more familiar with now.

“It’s so interesting that idea of ‘move fast and break things’ is still existing in a world where we all know what happens if you move fast and break things, things bigger than infrastructure are going to get broken, people’s lives are affected,” she said.

“I’m not a content moderation expert. I don’t know what the solution is, but it feels like the solution should have started a long time ago. I do think it’s possible to have progress and to mitigate against bad behaviour and it seems so interesting that the mindset around the creation of this latest iteration of social media has not taken on board those two things and instead just kind of blindly barrelled through in a quest to take over the world.”

Check out the full episode with Aoife Barry wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe for more.

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