Why have governments been so slow to remove illegal social media posts?

When it comes to debates around regulating Big Tech, one of the main issues that arises is ambiguity. How should governments decide what online content should be removed, when so much is open to interpretation? What is hateful to some is merely free speech to others. However, these discussions often overlook the many posts on social media that are not ambiguous – that may even be objectively heinous – and that aren’t regulated at all.

This week the Danish government announced it would be joining a group of other European countries trying to change the status quo, by giving social media companies a 24-hour deadline to delete “illegal posts”. The announcement followed a public campaign in Denmark that began in 2018 and has been calling for a crackdown on social media companies. It was spearheaded by the family of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, a 24-year-old Danish backpacker who was beheaded in Morocco by Islamic State terrorists in December 2018. The video of her beheading was shared repeatedly on Facebook and, in the past three years, her family has spoken publicly about being sent clips and images from the video by trolls and anonymous accounts.

The proposed legislation, to be voted on next month, follows the example of countries such as Germany and France, which recently brought in similar laws that give deadlines and large fines to social media platforms that do not swiftly remove content relating to illegal activity (such as terrorist propaganda or drug and child trafficking). As of last month, the European Commission is drawing up plans to criminalise certain types of post on social media. 

It’d be easy to look at these recent developments and chalk them up as a win against Big Tech and a heartening move from Western governments that signals a safer internet in the future. Surely punishments for social media giants, which hold endless power, wealth and control, should be applauded, especially when the atrociousness of the content is so indisputably clear?

It’s obvious that letting beheading videos circulate online is bad, and equally obvious that governments should intervene to remove this content if the platforms themselves don’t. So why, if this has been a major, public problem in Denmark since 2018, is the government acting only now, more than three years on, when the situation was just as egregious then as it is today?

The timing of this legislation reveals more about the Danish government – and, more broadly, Western governments – than the details of the legislation itself. The proposed law has been in the works for only the past few months, when scrutiny of social media companies has been arguably its highest ever level. The release of the Facebook Papers by whistleblower Frances Haugen in September – during a year when the world was falling out of love with Big Tech following the Capitol Hill riots and rampant vaccine misinformation – has meant an onslaught of bad PR for social media companies. (Their public image is so bad that Facebook appeared to change its company name to Meta to do damage control.) And not only is the legislation fairly recent: the Danish government allegedly sped up the process before the release of a television documentary detailing the Vesterager Jespersen family’s experience of being trolled on Facebook with images of Louisa’s death.

While any move to regulate Big Tech is a positive one, we should be wary of governments’ motivations. Beheading videos are a nearly decade-long problem on social media, having been discussed in the public sphere since 2013. We are only seeing real action now because it is in these governments’ best interests, and they are doing little more than the bare minimum to regulate. We should be asking not only why now, but also what more should be done. Families such as the Vesterager Jespersens could be spared much trauma if governments acted when problems began, not only when public opinion encouraged them.

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