With foreign tech bros easier to blame than problems closer to home, social media has become a catchall scapegoat, writes Matthew Lesh
Esther Ghey, the mother of Brianna Ghey, has called for a social media ban for under-16s. Brianna was a 16-year-old transgender girl murdered in a brutal premeditated attack.
This is a difficult case, and it’s understandable that a grieving mother would demand action after such a devastating loss. However, it is entirely unclear how banning social media could have prevented the stabbing.
The teenage killers, Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, looked up violent videos and planned the murder using a messaging app. The major social media platforms appear to be unconnected to the attack. Children could perhaps be prevented from messaging each other or looking at videos, but this seems impractical and disproportionate.
Esther Ghey also wants kids to have their searches tracked and parents told if certain words are found. Assuming a problem child did not find a way around this extreme violation of privacy, this may have flagged problems in advance. But there were already plenty of other signs. Jenkinson drugged a pupil at a previous school and was then transferred to a new school that wasn’t told about the incident. This represents a severe systemic failure that should be addressed before installing spyware on every child’s phone.
The court decided that the murder was primarily motivated by sadistic tendencies, with transgender hate a secondary motivation. It’s important to remember that troubled individuals, personality disorders and hatred existed before the invention of the internet or mobile phones.
Social media has become a scapegoat for every societal problem, with calls for tough action after every tragedy. It was not that long ago that there were demands to end online anonymity following the murder of MP David Amess. This is despite zero evidence that anonymous activity had anything to do with an Islamist extremist stabbing an MP. There are ongoing calls for action around children’s mental health despite a lack of empirical evidence that social media is responsible.
Perhaps it is much easier for those in power to blame foreign tech bros than address poor parenting, underperforming schools and problematic societal influences. Undoubtedly, social media can also be harmful when misused. But it can also enrich our lives through building connections, education and entertainment. These benefits extend to children, whose rights to free speech and privacy are often ignored in calls for social media crackdowns.
Brianna herself was an avid Tiktoker, amassing tens of thousands of followers. She even used various platforms, including Instagram, to befriend and support other young trans people.
“We’re both trans women from small villages, so our support network is all internet-based, and people don’t understand how big that network is. We all know and support each other,” a friend of Brianna’s told Vice last year. It’s sad to think of a world in which Brianna, and others like her, would no longer be able to access those networks.
There was a palpable excitement in the early days of social media, particularly around the Arab Spring and the Obama wave. Since Brexit and Trump, this feeling has turned to relentless criticism. Perhaps we will someday understand it like other communication technology, from the printing press or the radio. It’s an extension of humanity, warts and all. Malign actors can use it for problematic purposes. But it can and does also improve our lives in many ways.