Quoted in the Bookseller discussing free speech and the alt.right

I was quoted in The Bookseller today.  The report by Katherine Cowdrey gives all the context.

English PEN has said Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of expression must be respected, amid the furore surrounding the far-right editor’s lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster US.

“Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored,” said Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for the free speech organisation. He added that demands for S&S US to cancel the deal were tantamount to “censorship”.

“The right of Mr Yiannopoulos to write and to offend is integral to the principle of freedom of expression,” said Sharp. “Likewise, Simon & Schuster US has the right to make an editorial judgment over whether to publish his book. Demanding that the publisher cancels the book deal amounts to a call for censorship, and should be resisted.”

British Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News based in the US, known as a publisher of “alt-right” articles, and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. He was banned from Twitter for the racist trolling of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, reportedly received a $250,000 advance from S&S US for his book Dangerous, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster US in March 2017, but there are no plans for the UK arm to publish it, The Bookseller reported last week

Sharp emphasised the difference between criticism of the deal and calls for the book deal to be reversed. The latter, he argued, would set a terrible example to authoritarian governments.

“However, we must remember not everyone expressing dismay is asking for the book deal to be reversed,” said Sharp. “Many have simply expressed a negative opinion about Mr Yiannopolous writing and politics. Outrage is not in itself a form of censorship – it is also a manifestation of free speech.

“PEN campaigns for the victims of censorship in many countries around the world. Often, the people we seek to support have been branded as ‘dangerous’ or corrupting to society.  If we seek to silence people like Milo Yiannopolous on the same grounds, then we set a terrible example to more authoritarian governments.

“Anyone angered by this decision should use their own free speech to counter the ideas they disagree with. Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored.”

A few people were dismayed by this statement, saying that English PEN should not be giving me support or succour to the alt.right.  I hope to write more on this in the coming week.

A Framework for Countering Dangerous Speech

What to do when people engage in incitement and hate speech? This is surely the toughest challenge facing free speech defenders

I’m bookmarking this Washington Post profile of Professor Susan Benesch, whose research looks at ‘dangerous speech’—that is, speech that can incite mass violence.

For Benesch, it’s important that people understand that the type of speech she wants to counter is different from hate speech, which she says is a broad category for which there is no agreed-upon definition. An advocate for free speech, she does not believe that hate speech can or should be silenced. In fact, it’s one of the central reasons she sought to differentiate dangerous speech.

Continue reading “A Framework for Countering Dangerous Speech”

Quoted in the Mail on Sunday

I was quoted very briefly in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, in an article about a new police strategy for cracking down on Twitter abuse and threats.

It is feared that this will lead to large numbers of comments being reported to social media providers or police as inappropriate, even if they were only meant jokingly or had no malicious intent.  Robert Sharp, of the anti-censorship group English PEN, said: ‘Threats of violence must of course be investigated and prosecuted, but the police need to tread carefully.’

Continue reading “Quoted in the Mail on Sunday”

#KillAllWhiteMen? You must be joking

My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke.

Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths, is facing a petition for her removal after she allegedly used hate speech on social media.  Apparently she used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen.  Critics say this is inciting violence:  “Too befuddled by theory to know that killing is wrong“.

Obviously, someone elected to a position of authority and responsibility should be more diplomatic in their use of language so its probably right that she should be asked to step down.  But the story is a useful way to restate a point about ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ that I touched on a while back when Diane Abbott was accused of racism.

Its this: My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke.  I read the hashtag and my natural reaction is that she’s indulging in hyperbole.  Banter. I get to make that assumption because I don’t live in a society that demeans or belittles me because of my race or gender.  Nothing in the mainstream culture or media undermines me or makes me insecure because of my phenotype or chromosomes.

Black people do not get to make that assumption.

Women do not get to make that assumption.

LGBTQ people do not get to make that assumption.

When any of these people see comparable hashtags (posted, usually, by white men) the threat feels real, and their outrage in response to such message is real and justified.  Conversely, when there is an angry backlash against people like Mustafa on petition sites and newspapers like The Daily Mail, the outrage seems (to my mind) quite false: a mask donned in order to better fight the culture war.

None of this is to defend Bahar Mustafa or to suggest that routinely posting antagonistic messages is admirable.  Rather, its just to point out that context is important.  While laws should be blind to race, gender and sexuality, our society and the interactions within it are not.  Words that bite in one context may be toothless in another.

Indeed, changing contexts mean there will be situations where white men would indeed feel menanced by a hashtag.  For example, if it were tweeted in Paris on 7th January, right after the Charlie Hebdo murders, messages like #KillAllWhiteMen would take on on a whole new meaning, and I’d think again.

Twitter Asbos would squeeze freedom of expression without curbing anti-Semitic hatred

Twitter Asbos may seem benign in themselves, but the proposals are part of a pattern that squeezes freedom of expression and invites overreach.

First published in the International Business Times.

Last week, the Community Security Trust, a charity that records attacks and harassment against Jews living in the UK, recorded 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 — double the figure reported in the previous year.

On Monday, a group of British MPs published a report noting that whenever there is heightened conflict in the Middle-East, the rate of crime against Jews in the UK increases. The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism (APPGAA) also noted that the problem “continues to emanate from Islamist extremists, far-left and far-right groups” and made a number of recommendations to government, the police and the media to combat the issue.

The APPGAA report singles out social media as “a breeding ground for serious discriminatory and racist content” and recommends that the Crown Prosecution Service explores the use of prevention orders in cases where someone has been prosecuted for cyber-hate. Offenders would have their devices confiscated and be banned from using social media. The newspapers have labelled this idea ‘Twitter ASBOs’. Continue reading “Twitter Asbos would squeeze freedom of expression without curbing anti-Semitic hatred”

UKIP's muddled sense of free expression

In a recent press release, Janice Atkinson, a UKIP candidate for the European Parliament, calls on the police to prosecute Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism protesters under ‘hate crime’ legislation.

Ukip demands police action to arrest so-called ‘anti-racist’ protestors

Janice Atkinson, as Ukip SE chairman, and MEP candidate, jointly with colleagues Patricia Culligan and
Alan Stevens, MEP candidates, have raised concerns about the way the police will deal with the protestors
at the Hove Ukip public meeting, on Tuesday, 13th May to be held in the Jewish Hall.

They have formally asked the chief constable to arrest any protestors who call our supporters ‘fascists’, hurl other abuse or any physical assault, for ‘hate crime’ or under the public order act.

We therefore call on the police to confirm that they will prosecute under ‘hate crime’ any individual or group who seeks to intimidate our supporters and candidates or at least under the Public Order offence under
Section 4, 4A or 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the law and of the principles of free speech. Continue reading “UKIP's muddled sense of free expression”

Twitter trolls vs The Angry Mob

The politicians will seek to impose legislation on this kind of speech.

There has been another wave of online discussion about ‘trolling’ on social media platforms like Twitter.  The latest round of debate began after Caroline Criado-Perez wrote about the hideous abuse she received during the course of her campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note.

I have contributed a few comments in the past on this issue, and do not have anything new to say on the current controversy, save to say that at some point (it may be now, it may be later) the politicians will seek to impose legislation on this kind of speech.  I mentioned this conundrum during my #ORGcon panel discussion with David Allen Green et al in June.

In the meantime, a few quick links:

Continue reading “Twitter trolls vs The Angry Mob”

Check your privilege: Whose free speech is it anyway?

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.

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 the New 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?