Tag Archives: social media

cif-social-media

Free speech will suffer if politicians get tough on offensive tweets

I’ve had another article published on Comment is Free—this time about social media prosecutions and the tougher prison sentences that MPs want to introduce to punish those who send threatening messages via Twitter.

Social media is supposed to be the great enabler of free speech, but in fact it’s full of paradoxes. Posting on Twitter or Facebook is sometimes the quickest way to get censored. Governments like China and Vietnam closely monitor the online space for any sign of dissent, and a recent law passed in Saudi Arabia means a simple retweet could land you in prison for a decade.

Life is better in the UK, but the contradictions persist. Caroline Criado-Perez received misogynistic threats when she launched a campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note. Jane Goldman felt compelled to leave Twitter after receiving a torrent of abuse – ironically because her husband Jonathan Ross was perceived as sexist. Rape threats, hate speech and racism are common on social media. Women and minority voices are being forced off the platform: precisely the people who we need to hear more from in our political and cultural discussions.

These contradictions are a challenge to anyone who values free expression and open rights online. If we do not act to fix this problem – with either social or technological solutions – then those in parliament who are less concerned with protecting human rights will simply introduce tougher legislation to fix the problem for us.

You can read the whole thing on the Guardian website.

A few quick notes on the Twitter arrest

The Guardian reports:

Man arrested over Twitter threats to female MP and campaigner.
Police investigating threats to Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez say 32-year-old is being held in Bristol.

Some quick notes:

  1. Let us affirm that sending direct threats of violence to people is against the law.  Arresting and charging such people is not an affront to free expression.
  2. In fact, the threats are themselves an act of censorship.  They instill fear in the recipient, who may withdraw from the discourse.
  3. This arrest is in keeping with the Director of Public Prosecutions recent guidelines on dealing with social media messages.  The guidelines recommend that direct threats and harassment should be proecuted ‘robustly’.  Expect this chap in Bristol to be charged.
  4. Note that the police managed to track down this chap using existing powers and technical abilities.
  5. It is interesting that the man arrested is 32 years old.  All the other arrests and convictions were of much younger men.  Reece Messer (who trolled Tom Daley) was only 17.

A Technical Way Out of the Twitter Abuse Problem

Following the hideous trolling and abuse piled on people like Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy last week, there has been much debate over how Twitter as a company could solve the problem.1

Much of the chat has centred around the idea of a ‘Report Abuse’ button…  but I have my misgivings.  The risk of such a feature, is that mobs of idealogues will co-ordinate to report as ‘abuse’ those Tweeters with whom they disagree.  And celebrities with a large following will be able to ask their fans to report genuine critics as ‘abuse’.  This Flashboy post critiques the proposal in more detail.

Here’s an alternative:  Twitter should re-open its API. Continue reading

Check your privilege: Whose free speech is it anyway?

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?

Liberty Annual Conference: Is Speech Free Online?

I was delighted to be asked to speak on a panel at the Liberty Annual Conference yesterday. I took part in the ‘Is Speech Free Online?’ discussion with Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and the Erotic Review, and Bella Sankey, Liberty’s policy director. Martin Howe was the chair.

Speaking first, my co-panellist Ian Dunt made a pertinent point about how the low financial barriers to free speech online are also the reason that online speech may be threatened. People do not need financial reserves in order to publish online – It is cheap and quick. However, this lack of money also means they are more vulnerable to being sued by those who do have money and power. The publishing divide is not between online/offline, but between those with lawyers, and those without.

I began own my remarks by noting that speech was most certainly not free online in other parts of the world. I cited the recent manoeuvrings to criminalise online dissent by the Azerbaijan parliament; China shutting down dissident Sina Weibo accounts; and Fazil Say’s suspended sentence in Turkey.

I spoke about the recent prosecutions from remarks made on social media, and the fact that current laws include the word ‘offensive’ as a trigger for prosecution, which is open to abuse. I noted how the immediacy of social media messaging meant that immature political views follow you around long after they should have been discarded, but that Tweeting and Facebooking are forms of publishing and could never be cordoned off as some special type of speech that is subjected to different laws. Parents and teachers need to help the young ‘uns be savvier about what they choose to publish online. I finished by warning that we cannot take our free expression for granted when we use social media spaces that feel public, but are in fact owned by corporations with a profit motive to censor if it is in their financial interests to do so.

The player is below or you can listen on SoundCloud.

During the Q&A I also managed to slip in a few re-tweetables about the nature of free speech and ‘counter-speech’.

Here’s the view from the panel just before the start of the session, as people began to filter in.

20130518-202032.jpg

The Return of the Square

Two is a trend.  Vine, the new social media app that allows you to post 6 sec video clips, has a square format.  The videos are in a 1:1 aspect ratio.  This follows Instagram, the popular photo sharing app that gives the user focus and colour filters to improve their images.

This trend arrives just at the time when wide-screen has become the standard, default aspect-ratio of choice for both video and TV.  The footage generated by Apple iPhones, other cutting edge phone technologies, and the latest video cameras, all seem to be on the 2:1 ratio.  Before the move to High Definition, TV and camcorder footage was all 4:3.

Why the change to 1:1 for Instagram and Vine?  Perhaps because the ratio evokes Large Format photography.  This conveys a seriousness, a permenance, and a respect for the art of photography… a useful quality to communicate in the ephermeral, digital world of online image sharing.

Grand Central Station and Hotel Manhattan, New York, 1900 (Library of Congress)
Grand Central Station and Hotel Manhattan, New York, 1900 (Library of Congress)

Image from the Library of Congress, found via the NYC Past Tumblr and Kottke.org.

Say It To My Face?!

http://twitter.com/overhere1/status/272504190801154048

When discussing the media, blogging or twitter we hear a lot about this rule of thumb that says “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face”. I think this is a simplistic cliché.

There are lots of reasons to put in writing something that you would not say directly. What you want to say might be quite long. Or it may require hyperlinks to make sense.

But most importantly: the written word is a leveller. It is an essential tool for those who wish to speak truth to power. Saying something to the face of politicians, clerics, military personnel, corporate CEOs or celebrities is incredibly difficult. First you have to actually meet them… and then negotiate the entourages and your own nervousness in order to confront them and say what you want to say. This is incredibly difficult and would present a huge psychological barrier to criticism, if that were the only way we could express dissent.

We evolved the written word so we could converse with (and critique) other people – transcending space, time and social class. “Say it to someone’s face, or not at all” is a silly principle by which to live.

Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester

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.

Last week I went on the BBC Radio Worcester Breakfast show to make the case that while abhorrent, the prosecution was a step too far.  You can listen to my contribution via the embedded player below, or listen on the PodoMatic website. Continue reading

Twitter Succumbs to Regulation

The news that Twitter is censoring content in Germany is a great big casserole of free speech and censorship issues. There are so many things to say that I almost don’t know where to start. Almost.

The first issue is over the German laws against holocaust denial and Nazism. These laws are not unique in Europe and should be seen in the context of the second world war. Europeans, and Germans in particular, are obviously very sensitive about the Nazi ideology and one can understand why such laws are in place. However, this does not make them right or sensible. It is all very well to suppress Nazi ideology, but what if the next threat to democracy comes from a left wing perspective? Communism, after all, is as lethal as Nazism.

Suppressing any speech, however abhorrent, only serves to send it underground. It is far better to have such speech out in the open where it can be countered. The great failure in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not that Hitler was allowed to put forward his views, but that not enough people challenged him. This is how evil flourishes – good people stand by and do nothing. Laws against Nazism and holocaust denial are sticking plasters. They do not tackle the root cause of such ideologies, or change minds. Continue reading