Why are social networking sites so reluctant to ban hateful users?

The right to free speech is not an excuse for turning a blind eye to online aggression.

Picture of Donald Trump giving a speech

Social networking sites have been both the heroes and villains of the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting loved ones across Tiers and time zones while simultaneously providing a safe haven for fake news and hate speech.

This latter is perhaps best illustrated by none other than the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose tweets following the presidential election have been widely condemned for inciting the January Capitol riot, which led to the deaths of five people.

While Trump is the most eminent figure to have been banned by the social media giant, he is by no means the first. In November 2018, the Canadian journalist Meghan Murphy was banned permanently from Twitter for hateful speech towards transgender people. Murphy’s response was to launch a legal dispute contesting her right to free speech.

When right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins suffered a similar fate in June 2020, BBC News drew comparisons between Hopkins and Trump, but commented that ‘leaving such tweets up in the public interest is an exception Twitter makes for world leaders – other accounts like Ms Hopkins’ risk being suspended when they break Twitter’s rules.’

Is the right to free speech, even if it constitutes hateful abuse, really in the public interest? And, if so, will it always take a riot to prompt social media giants to act?

Social media – a censorship free zone?

We have no problem identifying aggression or unacceptable conduct in real life. When it comes to social networking sites, however, the boundaries seem more blurred.

A lack of clarity and universality when it comes to bans is certainly not helping, as more than 70% of Americans, and more than 80% of Republican-leaning voters, believe that social networking sites intentionally censure opinions they do not agree with. Even scholars in Law and Ethics disagree on what constitutes harmful speech and whether such forms of speech should be restricted.

When Meghan Murphy accused Twitter of stifling her right to free speech, she tapped into the heart of the issue that is tying Twitter’s hands. Does permanently removing an individual from a social media platform stifle necessary debate? In the interests of avoiding a repeat of Capitol Hill, it is essential that we clarify the boundaries between free speech and hate speech and/or the processes necessary to define acceptable speech.

Consensus and consistency

One concern for social networking sites is the public backlash they might receive for ‘no-platforming’ controversial speakers. In the first study to model the factors that influence the acceptance of restrictions on free speech by social media sites, we find that users closely scrutinize how social networking sites handle controversies arising from political debates. Findings from our research show that observers of online aggression make trade-offs between free speech and the desire to punish aggression. Our findings show that, while observers of social media interactions dislike aggression and are willing to see it punished, the rhetoric of free speech is systematically employed to justify aggression that come from the observer’s own political side. In other words, free speech concerns are leveraged to foster partisan interests. .

The importance of preserving public trust means that social media sites should evaluate each banning case cautiously. In circumstances where banning an individual is inevitable because of high levels of online aggression, it is essential that the sites justify their decision to observing users and explain why the ban should not be interpreted as a limitation to users’ right to free speech.

The controversy that currently surrounds social media bans highlights the need for wider and more transparent discussions on what kind of speech should be restricted on social media, especially when it comes to political debates. Embedding rules against online aggression into public policy, rather than relying on the discretion of tech giants, would be one way to ensure a consistent approach to banning decisions. A clear policy, with buy-in from users, could prevent scepticism around bans that emerges from inconsistently and unfounded application of censorship.

We have seen the deadly consequences that can result from online aggression. Policy makers must exercise their power to make sure there are no safe spaces for hate speech.

Professor Paolo Antonetti, Professor in Marketing at NEOMA Business School and Dr Benedetta Crisafulli, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management are co-authors of the paper “I will defend your right to free speech, provided I agree with you”: How social media  users react (or not) to online out-group aggression recently published by Psychology & Marketing.

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The surprising impact of innovation on reducing climate change

New research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred A. Yamoah and colleagues explores the relationship between innovation input, governance and carbon dioxide emissions.

Picture of a wind farm

There is no doubt that the humanitarian and economic impact of climate change is a matter for global concern. However, prior research tells us that it is emerging and developing economies that are likely to be hit hardest by the impact of global warming.

In their 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that emerging and developing economies, with their heavy reliance on agriculture, forestry and tourism, were more at risk from the adverse impact of climate change than more developed economies. Indeed, the IPCC found that every one-degree centigrade increase in temperature would lead to a 1.3% drop in economic growth in an emerging economy.

What role does innovation play in the fight against climate change?

Typically, the fate of countries in this position has been viewed somewhat fatalistically, with little known about what can be done to mitigate the damage caused by the poor climate choices of more developed countries. However, since innovative technologies are known to have a positive impact on climate change factors by conserving energy and reducing emissions, we wanted to know whether increased innovation input could support developing economies in the fight against climate change.

Our study involved an analysis of data from the World Bank database on 29 emerging countries over the period from 1990 to 2018. My colleagues Godfred Adjapong Afrifa, Gloria Appiah (both Kent Business School), Ishmael Tingbani (Bournemouth University) and I examined whether investment in cutting-edge technologies could help address climate change problems in emerging economies, and how this relationship is supported or mitigated by governance factors.

The impact of governance

Why is it important to consider governance alongside innovation and climate change? First of all, it is good for business: stakeholder theory tells us that organisations that please their stakeholders by following ethical norms of fairness, trustworthiness and respect are likely to see improved overall performance in the long term.

When it comes to climate change targets, governments and international governing bodies such as the EU or ECOWAS are among the most critical stakeholders, as they are more likely to take a long term view and possess the necessary regulatory powers to ensure best practices are upheld.

How innovation benefits emerging economies

The introduction of innovative technologies and practices can benefit emerging economies in a number of ways. For farmers, genetic technologies can develop resilient crops that adapt to environmental challenges in agriculture. New technologies also typically conserve energy and reduce harmful fuel emissions.

Looking at the data, our results suggest that emerging countries with high innovative competencies reduce climate change problems by approximately 26.8%, with a 10% increase in cutting-edge technology.

While these findings show the dramatic impact of innovation on mitigating the negative effects climate change, it is important to note that the positive results were moderated by governance factors, as the quality of governance influences countries’ investment in innovative technologies towards curbing environmental damage.

Contrary to the typically deterministic view of climate change, our results suggest that emerging economies’ innovation efforts could have a significant impact on national and global success in the fight against climate change.

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COVID-19 induced travel restrictions are not enough to mitigate crises like climate change. Could a circular economy be the answer?

Research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred Yamoah and colleagues points to a new way to rebuild the global economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image of a reuse logo

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, resulting in a massive health crisis and huge economic loss.

While the impact on life as we know it has been unthinkable, a side effect of the way of life forced upon us by the pandemic is an unprecedented reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, which are projected to decline by 8%. If achieved, this will be the most substantial reduction ever recorded, six times larger than the milestone reached during the 2009 financial crisis.

However, these changes should not be misconstrued as a climate triumph. They are not due to the right decisions from governments, but to a temporary status of lockdown that will not linger on forever; economies will need to rebuild, so we can expect a surge in emissions in the future. Indeed, the relatively modest reduction in emissions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that zero-emissions cannot be attained based on reduced travel alone; structural changes in the economy will be needed to meet this target.

The case for a circular economy

Before coronavirus prompted this dramatic shift in our way of life, it seemed that the world had been waking up to the need for change to protect our environment. The linear model of our industrial economy – taking resources, making products from them and disposing of the product at the end of its life – jeopardizes the limits of our planet’s resource supply. Girling (2011) found that around 90% of the raw materials used in manufacturing become waste before the final product leaves the production plant, while 80% of products manufactured are disposed of within the first six months of their life. Similarly, Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata (2012) reported that around 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste is generated by cities across the globe, which may grow to 2.2. billion tonnes by 2025.

Against this backdrop, the search for an industrial economic model that satisfies the multiple roles of decoupling economic growth from resource consumption, waste management and wealth creation, has heightened interests in concepts about circular economy.

What is circular economy?

Circular economy emphasises environmentally conscious manufacturing and product recovery, the avoidance of unintended ecological degradation and a shift in focus to a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life cycle for products.

In our current situation, there has never been a better time to consider how the principles of circular economy could be translated into reality when the global economy begins to recover. Strategies to combat climate change could include:

  • material recirculation (more high-value recycling, less primary material production)
  • product material efficiency (improved production process, reuse of components and designing products with fewer materials)
  • circular business models (higher utilisation and longer lifetime of products through design for durability and disassembly, utilisation of long-lasting materials, improved maintenance and remanufacturing).

Building back better

A circular economy could also act as a vehicle for crafting more resilient economies. The pandemic has forced a rethink of the way our global economy operates, revealing the inability of the dominant economic model to respond to unplanned shocks and crises. The lockdown and border restrictions have reduced employment and heightened the risk of food insecurity for millions.

To prevent a repeat of the events of 2020, it is necessary to devise long-term risk-mitigation and sustainable fiscal thinking, moving away from the current focus on profits and disproportionate economic growth. Circular economy concerns optimised cycles: products are designed for longevity and optimised for a cycle of reuse that renders them easier to handle and transform. Future innovations under this model would focus on the general well-being of the populace, alongside boosting the market and competitiveness.

This economic model would also support the achievement of social inclusion objectives, for example by redistributing surplus food from the consumer goods supply chain to the local community.

The benefits of a circular economy are therefore obvious in that it strives for three wins in terms of social, environmental and economic impact. The pandemic has instigated a focus on the importance of local manufacturing for a resilient economy; fostered behavioural change in consumers; triggered the need for diversification and circularity of supply chains and evinced the power of public policy for tackling urgent socio-economic crises.

Governments are recognising the need for national-level circular economy policies in many aspects, such as:

  • reducing over-reliance on other manufacturing countries for essential goods
  • intensive research into bio-based materials for the development of biodegradable products
  • legal frameworks for local, regional and national authorities to promote green logistics and waste management regulations which incentivise local production and manufacturing
  • development of compact smart cities for effective mobility.

Post COVID-19 investments needed to accelerate towards more resilient, low carbon and circular economies should be integrated into the stimulus packages for economic recovery being promised by governments, since the shortcomings in the dominant linear economic model are now recognised and the gaps to be closed are known. The question is no longer should we build back better, but how.

This blog was adapted from T. Ibn-Mohammed, K.B. Mustapha, J. Godsell, Z. Adamu, K.A. Babatunde, D.D. Akintade, A. Acquaye, H. Fujii, M.M. Ndiaye, F.A. Yamoah, S.C.L. Koh, ‘A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies’ in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 164. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105169

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If there is social capital, good Mayors are re-elected

Are the public more likely to re-elect a mayor who invests in long-term development? Yes, if there is social capital. The Department of Management’s Dr Luca Andriani shares the results of his latest research in collaboration with colleagues Alberto Batinti and Andrea Filippetti.

If a mayor is good, she should be re-elected. Prior research tells us that what distinguishes a “good” mayor from a “bad” mayor is the adoption of long-term oriented and transparent municipal fiscal policies. “Good” mayors re-allocate the municipal budget more towards capital investments (rather than current expenditures) and towards property tax, which is more transparent than a surcharge income tax. However, “good” mayors are not always re-elected. In this study, we argue that social capital might be a key reason. In a context with low social capital, municipal long-run fiscal strategy might not be rewarded.

Social capital generally refers to elements of cooperation, reciprocity and mutual trust regulating relations among members of a community. It is generally expressed through the presence of civically engaged citizens preferring leaders and governments that show credible commitments in taking good care of public resources, in acting efficiently and fairly and that adopt long- rather than short-run political economic strategies.

In this study, we look at the Italian context, as this is characterised by a pronounced economic regional disparity between the southern regions recording low economic growth and high unemployment and the more economically advanced northern regions. Italy is also a country with a large disparity of social capital endowment across regions and municipalities for several institutional and historical reasons (Putnam 1993).

Since the late 1990s, Italy has implemented two significant reforms aiming to bring local public institutions closer to the citizens’ needs and preferences: an electoral reform to appoint local governments and mayors and a fiscal reform towards a more federalist system. These changes have been pursued by economically wealthy regions seeking greater autonomy. They were also advocated as remedies to stimulate those administrations in regions that are less developed and efficient.

We test whether the probability of “good” mayors being rewarded, i.e. re-elected, is influenced by the level of social capital endowment existing in the municipality. We investigate this empirically in 6,000 Italian municipalities over the period 2003-2012. We consider the structural dimension of social capital as one referring to the individual’s involvement in associational activities and social networks. This dimension captures citizens’ prosocial behaviour and individuals’ attitude towards planning capacity and forward-looking decision making

Our results show that “good” mayors are more likely to be re-elected in contexts with more social capital. One can speculate that social capital may favour the reallocation of the municipal fiscal budget towards public investment vis-à-vis current expenditures and towards property tax vis-à-vis surcharge income tax, thus enhancing the efficiency and transparency of local public policy.

What does this mean for policy makers?

These results raise important reflections on the implementations of public policies promoting decentralization.

Fiscal federalism theory claims that decentralization improves the ability of local institutions to tailor specific policies aiming to meet citizens’ demands (e.g., DiazSerrano and Rodríguez-Pose, 2015). This gets reflected in the citizens’ satisfaction (e.g. Espasa et al., 2017; Filippetti and Sacchi, 2016). This study qualifies these results, showing that decentralization works relatively well in the presence of high levels of social capital. In social contexts where individuals value forward-looking and transparent fiscal policies, decentralization promotes better public policies and benefits public sector financial performance.

However, this study also advocates that decentralization policies should be coupled with initiatives to improve the capacity of local institutions to stimulate the accumulation of social capital. This could be pursued through two complementary strategies. Firstly, by employing programmes that favour the capacity-building of civic associations, including organizations for environmental, human, democratic rights. Secondly, by enabling these associations to be more involved in local governance. This can be achieved by providing local associations access to formal and informal avenues for participation, engagement and closer monitoring of local public decision-making process.

This blog is based on the following research paper:

Batinti, A. Andriani, L and Filippetti, A (2019) Local Government Fiscal Policy, Social Capital and Electoral Payoff: Evidence across Italian Municipalities. Kyklos 72(4): 503-526

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