Voting online: How would the Online Safety Bill affect harms arising from political discourse?

Self-regulation of social media is coming to an end: governments around the world have decided that platforms will need to be held to account for their role contributing to violent attacks, insurrections, and atrocities.

The Online Safety Bill is the UK’s attempt to answer how we reduce risks online, while preserving people’s freedom of expression. But in seeking to tackle political, the question of how to protect political discussion has been one of the more contested elements of the debate around digital regulation.

We examined online conversations around the May 2022 local elections which demonstrates the risks that exist within online political discourse: risks like the spread of harmful narratives through exploitation of platform systems, normalisation of identity-based discrimination, trust in elections being undermined, and the spread of targeted hate attacking people in public life. Under its current form, we do not believe the Online Safety Bill would impact the majority of these risks significantly.

In this report we show that a content-moderation first approach is insufficient, and that without upstream changes to platform systems, protecting political discourse of this sort can act as a gateway to more serious systemic harms.