Prince Harry has spoken out about the riots that occurred in Washington D.C. earlier this month.
Having recently relocated to the United States with his wife, former American actress Meghan Markle, the 36-year-old prince expressed concern over the role that social media played in the chaos.
When asked by Fast Company whether companies like Twitter and Amazon should be allowed to pick and choose who they give access to, Harry acknowledged the seriousness of the riots.
“We have seen time and again what happens when the real-world cost of misinformation is disregarded. There is no way to downplay this,” he said. “There was a literal attack on democracy in the United States, organised on social media, which is an issue of violent extremism.”
Harry then went on to give more examples.
“It is widely acknowledged that social media played a role in the genocide in Myanmar and was used as a vehicle to incite violence against the Rohingya people, which is a human rights issue,” the royal stated. “And in Brazil, social media provided a conduit for misinformation which ultimately brought destruction to the Amazon, which is an environmental and global health issue.
“In a way, taking a predominately hands-off approach to problems for so long is itself an exercise in power,” Harry continued.
He added that he’s been thinking about a place back in London called Speakers’ Corner that fosters “open-air debate, dialogue, and the exchange of information and ideas.”
Harry compared the area to a “public square,” which some have compared social media to amid the ongoing debates.
“There are ground rules. You can’t incite violence, you can’t obscure who you are, and you can’t pay to monopolise or own the space itself. Ideas are considered or shot down; opinions are formed,” he explained. “At its best, movements are born, lies are laid bare, and attempts to stoke violence are rejected in the moment. At its worst, intolerance, groupthink, hate, and persecution are amplified. And at times, it forces lines to be drawn and rules or laws to emerge or be challenged.”
However, the royal clarified that he doesn’t feel that “we should abandon technology in favour of Speakers’ Corner.”
“Rather, it’s that we should avoid buying into the idea that social media is the ultimate modern-day public square and that any attempt to ask platforms to be accountable to the landscape they’ve created is an attack or restriction of speech,” he said. “I think it’s a false choice to say you have to pick between free speech or a more compassionate and trustworthy digital world. They are not mutually exclusive.”
The Duke of Sussex pointed out that in the case of social media, a select few have designed “algorithms” that are seen by “billions” of users, whether the algorithm presents accurate information or not.
“This radically alters how and why we inform opinions. It alters how we speak and what we decide to speak about. It alters how we think and how we react,” he explained. “Ultimately, it has allowed for completely different versions of reality, with opposing sets of truth, to exist simultaneously.”
He said that such an industry model has decimated the need for “one’s understanding of truth” to be “based in fact,” as any form of “proof” can be found thanks to widely spread misinformation.
“I believe this is the opposite of what we should want from our collective online community,” Harry stated. “The current model sorts and separates rather than bringing us together; it drowns out or even eliminates healthy dialogue and reasonable debate; it strips away the mutual respect we should have for each other as citizens of the same world.”
The royal also revealed what he plans to do to address the problem, which he referred to as “a humanitarian issue.”
“This is why my wife and I spent much of 2020 consulting the experts and learning directly from academics, advocates, and policymakers. We’ve also been listening with empathy to people who have stories to share—including people who have been deeply affected by misinformation and those who grew up as digital natives,” he shared.
The royal concluded: “What we hope to do is continue to be a spotlight for their perspectives, and focus on harnessing their experience and energy to accelerate the pace of change in the digital world.”