Taming the trolls isn't just a matter of ethics for Twitter and Facebook: It makes good business sense

Rejoice, ye City folk, for a study has found that, for the first time in years, trust in British businesses has actually risen.

According to new figures from the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, the credibility of chief execs has risen 14 points in the last year, while board-level directors have been treated to a 10-point rise in trust levels.

But one group of companies is suffering. Social media firms have, not altogether surprisingly, had a particularly gruelling year, reputation-wise. Just 24 per cent of the British public said they trust the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, while a mere third of the population believed they are good for society. Coming in the same week Apple chief executive Tim Cook said he wouldn't let kids use social media, that is a pretty damning indictment of the sector.

There is no arguing with the fact social media is in a parlous state. Over the past year or so, not only has it been embroiled in the fake news controversy, but it has committed sundry other offences, from the fairly minor (censoring an iconic image of a young girl running from a napalm attack) to the really very major (accidentally assisting the distribution of Russian propaganda and misinformation during a globally significant democratic election).

The situation has become so bad, Germany has passed a law to crack down on hate speech; pressure is growing on other governments to make a similar move.

But as arguments rage over fake news, free speech and the censorship thereof, Silicon Valley’s new elite faces a more immediate problem: cash money. Two and a half years after its IPO, Twitter shares remain well below its IPO price as investors look anxiously at stagnant user figures, while Snap, Inc, Snapchat’s parent company, is close to an all-time low.

And investors are not the only ones nervously watching the headlines. As Lego showed with its decision to withdraw adverts from certain publications following pressure from online campaigners, advertisers are very skittish when it comes to being involved with controversy. So for social media companies, finding a way to tame the trolls is not merely a question of ethics - it makes good business sense, too.

Mike PalmerComment