The Duke of Cambridge has accused social media giants of being “on the back foot” when it comes to fighting issues like cyber-bullying, fake news, and hate speech.
Prince William said technology firms “still have a great deal to learn” about their responsibilities as he challenged them to properly address poison spread online.
He said he believed tech leaders were “people of integrity” but they appeared to be unwilling to tackle social issues amplified by the platforms.
In a hard-hitting speech at BBC Broadcasting House in London on Thursday, he outlined how a “culture of defensiveness” and focus on profits was undermining the industry’s relationship with the public.
He said: “Over a decade ago, when social media first became a standard part of daily life, there was so much justifiable reason for optimism.
“The fun we had at parties, the victories we celebrated on the football pitch, the cake we ate at our child’s birthday.
“All of it was captured, posted and shared with our friends, making us feel closer to each other even when we were apart.
“Our politics appeared more direct and more transparent. The physical distance between nations and peoples seemed less important.”
He added: “We all have to acknowledge, though, that much of the early optimism and hope of social media is giving way to very real concern, and even fear about its impact on our lives.
“We have seen that the technology that can allow you to develop an online community around a shared hobby or interest can also be used to organise violence.
“And the apps we use to make new friends, can also allow bullies to follow their targets even after they have left the classroom or the playing field.”
William, who was with the Duchess of Cambridge, heard about a BBC app being developed called Own It, which BBC director-general Tony Hall said would soon be available for “every child in the UK”.
The app will monitor what schoolchildren type in messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat and prompt them with warnings if they are about to send personal information or comments deemed hateful.
The Royal couple talked with schoolchildren and parents about the project, which is part of the Royal’s Taskforce on the Prevention of Cyberbullying.
It was set up in 2016 after he became a new parent and grew worried about children’s exposure to the internet.
But William said he had been left disappointed after meeting technology leaders and researchers to discuss ways to make it safer for children online.
He went on: “What I found very quickly though was that the sector did not want to own this issue.
“I heard doubts being cast about the scale of the problem.
“I was told that companies were already doing plenty and just needed more credit for it.
“I saw denials issued about the age of young children on some of our most popular platforms.
“Crucially I heard over and over again that a collective approach – across the industry, with charity partners, internet service providers, researchers, and parents – just wouldn’t work.”
William was introduced to the stage by Sarah Parke, whose daughter Grace, now 18, posted a suicide message online when she was younger, but then found great value in online resources to “get through the darkest of days”.
The Duke and Duchess also met youths who wrote and performed a new video for Stop, Speak, Support – a campaign being introduced in schools to advise children what to do when they see online bullying.
William said: “I am worried though that our technology companies still have a great deal to learn about the responsibilities that come with their significant power.
“I say this not in anger. Again, I believe that our tech leaders are people of integrity who are bringing many benefits to our lives and societies.
“I am very concerned though that on every challenge they face – fake news, extremism, polarisation, hate speech, trolling, mental health, privacy, and bullying – our tech leaders seem to be on the back foot.
“Their self-image is so grounded in their positive power for good that they seem unable to engage in constructive discussion about the social problems they are creating.
“The noise of shareholders, bottom lines, and profits is distracting them from the values that made them so successful in the first place.
“They are so proud of what they have built that they cannot hear the growing concern from their users.”
He concluded: “And increasingly they seemed resigned to a posture with governments and regulators that will be defined by conflict and discord.
“It does not have to be this way.
“You can reject the false choice of profits over values. You can choose to do good and be successful.
“We not only want you to succeed. We need you to.”