Do you remember the so-called scandal earlier this month, when it was revealed that UCAS (the charitable company that administers university applications and admissions) was selling on students’ contact details to advertisers? Charlotte Sexauer of AsianCorrespondent.com delved deeper into the story, and found that there may be less to the controversy than we first assumed:
Essentially, therefore, it would appear as though what UCAS is doing is the same as any other online business – namely, asking students’ permission to send them emails for products that are likely to appeal to them.
I spoke to Charlotte about the issue and my comments were included in her article. Here I am, riffing on the conceptual difference between the personal information we choose to share on Facebook, and the data that companies hold on us:
The fact that people post reams of data to Facebook is often given as an excuse for companies trading in our personal data, our online activity and our commercial activity,” he says. “But there’s a huge conceptual difference between data we can control and delete, and data stored in a computer record we do not have access to. Opting out of Facebook may be socially difficult, but anyone can do it in a matter of moments. Likewise, opting out of the Nectar Card programme is as simple as cutting the purple card in half. But opting out of a database that you do not even know you are on is a much harder proposition.
A little while back, the Independent ran a feature on ‘the selfie’, that genre of modern self-portrait taken with a smart phone. Hilary and Chelsea Clinton had published a selfie, which signalled the form’s crossover from youth culture to the mainstream.
When we discuss social media, the usual insight is that it allows people (whether they are public figures like Hilary Clinton or Rhianna, or just ordinary members of the public) to communicate without having to go through the established media corporations. But I think the great significance of social media is that the traditional media outlets have completely co-opted it into their coverage. The mainstream media’s tracking of Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Russia was powered by Twitter. Sports reporters quote Tweets from players and managers to gain insights into their state of mind or the state of their transfer deal.
Here’s an audio recording of my remarks at the ORGcon panel ‘The right to be offensive: free speech online’.
I saw this event as an opportunity to develop the discussion on offence and free speech that I had at the Liberty AGM panel last month. There, the discussion about offensive words centred around ideas of blasphemy and obscenity, and the conclusion seemed to be ‘people need to have thicker skins.’ When it comes to the criticism and satire of religion or public figures, I agree with this sentiment. But it is a weak and incomplete response to the hate speech and bullying. An article by Helen Lewis at theNew Statesman was fresh in my mind – a nasty culture of rape threats and racism seems to be evolving, and it is driving people offline. This is also a free expression issue.
So free speech advocates are faced with a challenge. If we campaign to esnure that offensive comments are legal and permitted in public and quasi-public fora like Twitter and Facebook, what do we do about the hate speech? What do we do about the racist and sexist comments that discourage minority voices from participating in the discussion? To expect these people to get a thicker skin and just shrug it off is a privileged attitude that prioritises the free speech of one group over another.
Human rights campaigners must come up with a solution that addresses hateful comments, but without recourse to law. There may be technical solutions or behavioural remedies we can use to discourage the rape-threats and the sexism and the racism. If liberal defenders of a free internet to do not address this problem, then populist politicians will seize the initiative and burden us with authoritarian speech laws.
Is online vigilantism the answer? Can we not use our own right to free speech to shame the people posting the ugly comments? Fellow pannellist David Allen Green was wary of ‘Twitter storms’, saying that they often result in someone in the storm calling the police. He said that are unfocused and has previously likened them to an Orwellian Two-Minute Hate. But perhaps a more surgical form of online counter-speech is the answer? What would that look like, I wonder?
Twitter sometimes combines the Two Minute Hate and Lord of the Flies in a way neither Orwell nor Golding would have been surprised at.
I have become an avid listener of the Overthinking It podcast. It is a few guys, chatting via Skype from disparate locations in the USA, shooting the breeze about popular culture.
A recent episode (an atypical two-hander between Matthew Wrather and Peter Fenzel) is called ‘Schroedinger’s Instagram’, and discusses in depth the pop-cultural implications of the recent purchase of Instagram by Facebook. In doing so, they cruise by many of the obsessions and diversions of this blog.
The rise of the ‘selfies‘ (i.e. a digital self-portrait).
Wrather and Fenzel talk a little about party photos and holiday snaps. The way in which people ‘pose’ for ostensibly candid photos has always fascinated me. I know people who make a peace ‘V’ with their fingers, or open their mouths as if the excitement of the moment has overcome them… but then they lapse into a rather glum repose once the flash has fired. They are consciously creating an inaccurate facade for Facebook. Continue reading →
The lastest person to be prosecuted forgiving offence on social media is eighteen year old Sam Busby, from Worcester. Like Matthew Woods, he posted jokes about missing schoolgirl April Jones on Facebook.
I admit I have bouts of sentiment for the printed page. In general, however, I allow my head to rule my heart in thse matters. The China Mieville quote I posted a few days ago persuades me that we don’t really need to fetishize print.
However, I think that two commentaries on this news from two of my favourite bloggers miss something in their enthusiasm for this transition. Continue reading →
The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial. Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.
However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading →