Molly Russell coroner urges social media giants to overhaul algorithms

Inquest coroner Molly Russell has told social media companies to consider overhauling algorithms to stop them bombarding children with harmful content.

Chief Coroner Andrew Walker is expected to conclude on Friday whether suicide and self-harm material on platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest contributed to the death of 14-year-old Molly in November 2017.

After hearing final submissions at North London Coroner’s Court on Thursday, he raised his safety concerns with lawyers for the two social media companies. He acknowledged he couldn’t make any formal recommendations, but instead urged them not to pass up the chance to make children safer online.

Mr Walker’s concerns centered on the content available and recommended to children by the algorithms that underpin social media sites.

Instagram uses a so-called “content ranking” algorithm, which means that if a user interacts with an image or video, they see more and more similar videos. For Molly, this led to her “gorging” on an increasing amount of graphic material, including suicide scenes and self-harm wounds before taking her own life.

The inquest heard that after his death, his family discovered that Pinterest continued to send him emails with galleries of heartbreaking content under titles such as: “New ideas for you in depression.”

“A source of risk”

Other concerns raised by Mr Walker included the lack of an age verification process, children and adults sharing a platform in the first place, children seeing the same content as adults and parents not benefiting of any monitoring of the content consulted by their children.

He told attorneys for Pinterest and Meta, owner of Instagram: “This is an opportunity to secure this part of the internet – don’t let it get away. We need to.

He said it was once the case that children entered a ‘safe place’ as soon as they walked through the front door, adding: ‘With the availability of the internet, we have brought into our homes a source of risk, and we did. without measuring the extent of this risk.

“If there is any benefit that can come from this investigation, it must be recognizing this risk and taking steps to ensure that the risk we have so embraced in our homes is kept completely away from children.

He described the testimony heard at the inquest into Molly’s death as “a rare opportunity to see how this risk has pervaded every aspect of young people’s lives”.

“Disordered and incomplete understanding”

Earlier in the hearing, Oliver Sanders KC, representing the Russell family, gave an excoriating assessment of the evidence given to the court by Meta in his closing submissions to the coroner.

He pointed to the company’s “utterly staggering” suggestion that Molly’s “experience on Instagram was somehow equivalent to reading poems by Sylvia Plath or reading Romeo and Juliet”. Meta and Pinterest, he claimed, continued to fail to understand the risks “they were creating.”

Mr Sanders also condemned the ‘bizarre suggestion’ that Molly had somehow found support in the content on the platform when in reality the posts encouraged her not to tell others about her issues while still presenting suicide as “a fatality”.

Instagram, he said, displayed a “deranged and incomplete understanding of the risks” posed to children and how to manage them.

The inquest will end on Friday.

Sharon D. Cole