Like a child that is spoilt and behaving atrociously, recent events in the world of social media, have shown a nasty side to ‘free speech’ on the web. How to tackle it is a big problem and a debate is going on now.
As a contribution to it, MBF Blogs sets out some of the questions that users need to address calmly and thoroughly. If not, there will be all kinds of regulation and restriction that will neither solve the problems nor protect people from abuse.
At the heart is the issue of how much people’s freedom to speak openly (and partially anonymously) online about other people can be balanced with the need to protect the privacy and differing views of those who are being commented upon by others?
Is It All Worth Saying Anyway?
Brendan O’Neill wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 31 July 2013 that ‘switching on the internet nowadays is like opening a sluice gate of senselessness..’ He went on to label much of what is posted as ‘a nauseating volcano of personal, invariably petty opinion.’
He decried the endless comments attached to every news report, the hundreds of ‘self-elected trip advisers’ commenting on a holiday you have booked. He called it a cacophony of commentary and confessionalism. The internet has been colonised by morons, he argued.
Twitter was singled out as the place where users make ‘revelations about their lives bordering on sluttishness.’ He welcomed the fightback, citing the prankster who made up a restaurant in Devon and put it on TripAdvisor which fooled hundreds into looking for it.
However, O’Neill is no opponent of the web. He believed that our problem is cultural, not technological. People have always harboured anger, desire for revenge and in the past would have had to write to a newspaper and post a letter, or swallowed it. Now there is the instantaneous ‘weird urge to blab’ even crude thoughts.
Today’s culture promotes self-expression over self restraint. He prefers to let his views ‘stew, simmer, to be sieved for stupidity by my neocortex’ before making them public. That is what Twitter users in general do not do.
Does Opinion Have to Be So Offensive?
Caroline Criado-Perez, a writer, campaigned for Jane Austen to be the face on the new £10 banknote. For that, she was subjected to a torrent of vitriol and loathing, including death, just as if she was a child killer. When Stella Creasey, Labour MP for Walthamstow, stepped in and spoke in support of Criado-Perez’s right to campaign she herself was threatened with rape.
What sort of person uses free speech to threaten another person with rape and murder?
Equally, what sort of mind thinks it’s acceptable to deface the webpages set up by grieving families of often young people who have committed suicide with mocking, insulting comments?
Internet trolls are a strange breed, clearly. People can report to the police when they are threatened. A 21-year old man has been arrested in connection with the Criado-Perez case, but it was done in the often heavy-handed way police do things, sending 9 officers to arrest him. A few have been found guilty and served time.
What Is Twitter Doing?
The pressure for Twitter to do more than provide an online form to complain, was massive. 60,000 people signed an online petition. If you are getting a violent, sexually aggressive threat every minute, a very barrage every hour, reporting them is impossible.
The petition was started by a 28-year old woman from Great Yarmouth, Kim Graham. She wanted Twitter to introduce a ‘report abuse button’, which is now to happen. Senior politicians are now urging Twitter to ‘go further’ and take responsibility for the platform they give users.
One Twitterer, 20-year old university student Oliver Rawlings, sent an abusive message to the classics professor Mary Beard, calling her a ‘filthy old slut’ and other derogatory remarks. She retweeted Rawlings’ remarks and the vitriol turned on him from her appalled followers.
It was at that point that a user, recognising Rawlings, told Mary Beard that if she wanted to send the tweet to his mother, she’d provide the address. Within minutes Rawlings was grovelling and apologising. The offensive tweet vanished.
In that case embarrassment and fear of what his mother would think was enough to bring the youngster round. It doesn’t work with most people who think women are fair game, especially those in the public eye for any reason.
So, O’Neill may well be right, it’s a cultural problem.
How do we deal with that? Any thoughts on how to change the mindset of so many?
Blogs of related matters:
A New Evil from Sick People Stalks the Net, 11 June 2012
If Twitter Ruled the World, What Would Its Policies Be? 19 August 2013
When Campaigning for Web Freedom Gets Real, Dirty and Personal, 11 February 2013
Time to Cage the Twittering, Tweeting Bird of Internet Freedom, 22 January 2013
Policing the Internet: Everybody Wants to Do It, Nobody Will, 10 October 2012
All That Twitters is No Longer Gold, 3 September 2012
Who Actually Owns Your Social Media? 19 June 2012
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