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Is it possible to litigate social media?

Is it possible to litigate social media?

Max Alexander-Jones


Reading time: four minutes

In this blog I will look at whether it is possible to litigate social media, with a focus on body image issues.

From pro-anorexia forums to the contemporary drive to foster a better way of looking at ourselves, body image and social media have long been examined in light of one another. This has culminated in a recent bill proposed by Conservative MP and member of the Health and Social Care Committee, Dr Luke Evans, which proposes that all ‘altered’ photos posted by celebrities with more than 30,000 followers be tagged. A bill along very similar lines has already been enacted in France.

This raises three central questions.

Firstly, is this restriction of freedom of expression legal?

Secondly, does the bill provide a stopgap solution rather than attempt to treat the root causes?

Thirdly, the bill has yet to be reviewed – how does this affect its efficacy?

Is this restriction of freedom of expression legal?

First, the legality of this bill is circumspect. The laws on free speech have long been expanded to include images, and the attempt to assert power over what many believe to be a free expression of a personal body image veers on the verge of authoritarianism. Currently, UK law only limits the freedom of expression when it is an express threat to “health or morals” and “necessary in a democratic society.” A valid and well-reasoned compulsion to pass this bill would certainly have to be proven.

Currently, there is not enough evidence to prove a link between poor body image and altered photos. This means that unlike, for example, the evidence on the substantive link between cigarettes and cancer, the connection between altered photos on social media and body image issues has not been strongly proved. How can you, therefore, justify such a restrictive bill?

Does the bill provide a stopgap solution rather than attempt to treat the root causes?

Second, the issue of utility. While there is a link between body image problems and certain groups and posts on social media, not enough research has been done on the subject to suggest that there would be a statistically significant increase in wellbeing among vulnerable teenagers. The study on which Evans bases his bill is flawed (The Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 2019). First, the sample size is small – only measuring 2,000 women and girls does not present a large enough sample size to measure the attitudes of an entire population.

The second problem is that it does not actively highlight the problem. While it does suggest that nearly 70% of girls use filters to make themselves look better online, this does not, in itself, indicate that there is a problematic issue with body image. Likewise, the study uses ‘bad faith’ statistics. Comparing the PR report to the actual data suggests that they have discarded those who do not post on social media. This is a shaky foundation for the bill, as poor statistical methods invite poor conclusions.

The bill has yet to be reviewed – how does this affect its efficacy?

The third concern with the bill is that it has not been reviewed yet. While the French bill has seen some success, its main difference is that it has not targeted social media so directly, and thus is not an accurate parallel. The first issue is that there is a lack of clarity about who it will apply to.

While this law may apply to many British influencers, there is some confusion as to whether it could affect influencers from other countries. This presents a legal dilemma, as the efficacy of British law on foreign persons and foreign companies is, at best, circumspect. Plus, it is not yet known how much this will cost to enforce.

While there is some data on the French bill, it targets advertisers and fashion, we can see even weightier costs in the future, given that more than 60% of Instagram accounts have over 10,000 followers, they may not adhere to this law as planned, leading to the increased cost to prosecute.

Further, given that Evans wants no more than an apology, this would be a fruitless endeavour due to the lack of recompense for the effort put into enacting and enforcing this law. Thus, while this law is good in theory, its practical flaws outweigh its theoretical benefits.


Overall, while this bill does have some merit, it is not the right way to go about fixing the body image issue. The main flaws with this bill are that there are relatively few supporting studies, and no way to fully understand the cost based on the information released. The bill is also legally difficult, due to its possible violation of the 1998 Human Rights Act and is based on a very criticisable study. There are other options than simply legislating against this issue.

This can be seen in a single policy of encouraging a healthier view of bodies, nutrition and fitness from an early age. This would tackle body image from the root, compared to the bill’s stopgap solution.