Saqib Bhatti: Where Musk and Twitter lead, other social media companies must swiftly follow

29 Apr

Saqib Bhatti is MP for Meriden.

I am a great believer in the good that social media has done since its inception over the last two decades. It has transformed the way we interact, the way we share ideas, the way in which we stay connected and has brought communities together.

With global challenges such as climate change, poverty, and even the conflict we are now witnessing in Ukraine, social media has facilitated a global conversation about the issues.

However, for as long as I can remember, Twitter and platforms like Facebook have been vehicles for the good and the bad that takes place in the online world.

Elon Musk’s audacious bid for Twitter has been characteristically headline grabbing across the globe. Musk has fired the starting gun on what is likely to be a new world order in the way we interact online. After his takeover bid was accepted, he tweeted a celebratory message with the following note:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated… I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

This is a laudable intention, and it is precisely why, last year, I and 50 of my colleagues wrote to social media giants, including Twitter, asking them to take the necessary steps to clean up the most egregious abuses on the internet.

We had asked for three things – all accounts to be verified, the algorithm to be adjusted with human interaction to account for differences in languages, and a “three strikes and you are out” policy for serial offenders to know that they can no longer get away with abuse.

Unfortunately, not all the companies replied. Those that did, took the view that they were already doing enough. Plainly this was neither true; nor was it surprising.

Social media companies, which thrive and profit off user engagement and the length of interaction, have failed to curb online abuse and have in fact thrived off it.

You don’t have to take my word for it. There are plenty of examples where social media companies haven’t done enough.

If you are in the public eye and a woman, you are likely to be subject to unacceptable levels of misogyny and yet nothing meaningful is ever done to stop it from happening.

The same goes for racism. Last year, the whole country was gripped by the success of our national football team in the Euros. Sadly, we lost another penalty shootout and the three young black men who had been our heroes were subject to a torrent of racist abuse.

Abuse on Twitter was rife and monkey emojis that were used to taunt them were not taken down because the Instagram algorithm did not deem it to be racist. Whilst the public outcry was significant, the response from the social media companies was lacking.

The desire to have greater regulation in the online world is not to curtail our rights to free speech; it is because there is a need to protect free speech from the toxicity of abuse and harms that the Online Safety Bill has become a necessity. It is needed to stop the arguments of free speech being used as a mask for what is abusive and harmful behaviour.

It cannot be right that social media algorithms, in their efforts to prolong screen time, will lead young girls to watch videos that promote eating disorders or suicide.

That is why the Government has taken an intelligent approach to try and address the harmful media online while also balancing the needs to protect freedom of speech. Their ambition to be safest place in the world to use the Internet is certainly commendable.

Fundamentally, social media companies have failed to recognise their moral duty to tackle online abuse. Accepting abusive behaviour must not be an inevitable consequence of being in the public eye.

Unfortunately, social media companies have allowed a culture of abuse to fester online in return for what I can only describe as digital blood money.

As Musk has shown, if they have the will to change, they certainly have the skill, innovative ability and resource to make it happen. It is now time for Meta, TikTok, Reddit, and Snapchat to step up or get left behind.

Saqib Bhatti: Britain must champion religious freedom abroad – and at home

31 Jul

Saqib Bhatti is MP for Meriden.

Freedom is something that has been spoken a lot about in recent weeks and months. Many of us may have even enjoyed a highly anticipated ‘Freedom Day’.

Of course, the end of lockdown was a significant moment for so many in this country. However, around the world we can find countless instances of men, women and children robbed of the most basic freedoms with no roadmap or exit strategy in sight.

In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of the Covid measures we saw in the UK was the closure of places of worship, particularly for people of faith during their holiest times such as Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Eid and Diwali. The loss of congregation was devastating for many communities and as a man of faith myself, it brought into sharp focus what life is like for those who are never allowed to practise their faith in public or in private.

It is an unfortunate fact that in the 21st Century, having the basic right to practise your religious beliefs freely is still not a given right in certain parts of the world. The rights of people of faith to practise their own religion are being seriously curtailed by the closure of places of worship, the persecution of religious minorities and the systematic killings of minority populations.

I am pleased that in the UK, it is our Prime Minister who has demonstrated that promoting respect between religious communities is a key priority for the Government overseas. We have seen the important role played by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion of Belief.

But as a recent Human Rights Report by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office highlights, there is still much more to be done to ensure that people of faith around the world are truly free to express themselves.

This week, I joined a panel discussion on this very issue, hosted by the Coalition for Global Prosperity. The panel, made up of a fascinating mix of faith leaders and campaigners explored how Global Britain can help promote religious freedoms around the world and be a true force for good.

It may be obvious but is worth stating: having religious freedom within a society – including the right not to practise any religion if you so desire – is an example of a mature and developed society. Often the lack of religious freedom can be emblematic of the ruling classes’ attitudes to other freedoms.

Religious minority groups such as the Baha’i people in Iran have faced a ‘cradle to grave’ situation of persecution because the Iranian constitution provides a framework for the terror they experience. The persecution of the Yazidi people has been ongoing for centuries and shows no sign of letting up – most recently the atrocities have been at the hands of ISIS. The suffering experienced by the Muslims in Bosnia also comes to mind, where despite a NATO intervention the world was not able to stop a genocide.

And of course, Christian communities across the world still aren’t able to practise freely, while the plight of the Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese government has been widely documented.

Protecting religious freedoms should be a top priority for the international community and only a co-ordinated approach will ensure that religious communities across the globe are free to practise whatever faith they wish in peace. Britain must be at the forefront of this effort. It is encouraging to see that ten of the 22 recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s report have been enacted, we are making excellent progress with a further eight and the UK is on the way to meeting all 22 by 2022.

In a world where reversion to populism and protectionism is often seen as a safe corner, it is Britain that can lead the way, working with its international partners to promote the journey of human rights and universal acceptance of religious freedoms.

Before entering politics, I served as President of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. I have seen for myself the constructive role that business can play in supporting religious communities, and I am a big proponent of business being a force for good. In this case, it must be. Ultimately, companies have a responsibility to make sure their supply chains are clean and if there is a risk of slave labour being used or persecuted minorities being involved in their supply chains, then they must make corrective actions.

Alongside practical, urgent steps to alleviate persecuted communities, we must also make the case for a long-term cultural shift in the way religious freedoms are perceived overseas.

Closer to home, there has been much dismay at the decision by the European Court of Justice to state that individuals can be stopped from wearing symbols of their faith if the rule is applied equally. In other words, you can discriminate against religious communities, providing you are indiscriminate in the way you do it.

Telling individuals that symbols of their religion are not necessarily part of their identity shows at the very least a gross misunderstanding of many people’s relationship with their faith and will be harmful to society in the long-term. Religion can be a true asset to society, and we must change attitudes so that religious freedoms to be perceived as a vehicle for more integrated, developed, and cohesive societies.

The United Kingdom, alongside our allies must remain a beacon of hope for those countless individuals facing persecution around the world for the sole ‘crime’ of expressing their faith. For Global Britain to truly live up to its potential, we must not only be a trading nation, or have strong defence – as important as these are. We must also be steadfast in our beliefs and in our promotion of human rights as a key cornerstone of our foreign policy.