This is an emotive and controversial subject so it’s worth reminding ourselves of my standard disclaimer.
On Thursday, I was interviewed on Sky News about free speech on social media. On Sunday evening, it emerged that the woman confronted by Martin Brunt in his associated report had been found dead in a hotel in Leicester. At the time of writing details about the circumstances of Brenda Leyland’s death have not been made public.
This development raises all sorts of new questions about the conduct of the media, about discourse on social media, about the targetting of other social media users by online vigilantes, and about mental health issues. I will not try to answer them here, but I will raise a couple of points I think are pertinent.
First, the entire Twitter history of Ms Leyland’s @SweepyFace Twitter account can currently be viewed and downloaded via GrepTweet(or here as a .txt file). There are over 4,000 tweets in the account and all of them appear to be about the McCanns… or rather, about #McCann, the ongoing “he said, she said” debate between pro- and anti- tweeters. Browsing through the tweets, I see none that I would describe as threats or abuse. The tweets do not directly address the McCanns, who are not on Twitter.
Related to this: its unclear which, if any of these tweets were in the dossier sent to the police and seen by Martin Brunt.
Second, it is incredibly sad and ironic that the death of a woman acused of trolling should mean that the Sky News reporter who exposed Brenda Leyland is now the subject of a Twitter storm. This week I have often thought of this message from legal blogger Jack of Kent which sums up the situation perfectly:
Twitter often combines the Two Minute Hate and Lord of the Flies in a way that neither Orwell nor Golding would have been surprised at.
I am surprised I missed this as the time: Tweets from Tahrir. Its a compilation of tweets from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns. During the protests I suggested that the protestors in ‘the world’s biggest think-tank’ publish their hopes for the future of Egypt and that new technologies could help them do it very quickly. Idle and Nunns appear to have got this precise project published within a month.
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.
I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore:
“The worry is that the abuse button will be abused,” said Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression. “It puts the power of censorship into the hands of those who would be offended, which is fine when it’s a rape threat. But the same technology will be used by Christians to censor atheists, used by atheists to censor Christians, and so on.”
Credit where its due: Tom Phillips’ article on theTwitter abuse button was fresh in my mind when I spoke to the WaPo journalist. And there’s a huge body of work out there on the issue of ‘offence’ as a trigger for censorship. My turn of phrase “those who would be offended” is not natural speech, but its the sort of thing that springs to mind when you’ve been marinated in these kinds of arguments.
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 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 had not read the term ‘fauxtroversy’ before now, but I think Dorian Lynskey uses it perfectly in his New Statesmanarticle about the Kent Youth Commissioner Paris Brown. 17 year-old Paris has been forced to resign from her appointment, following ‘exposure’ of inappropriate tweets… Some written years ago. The views expressed would be surprising coming from the feed of, ooh, let us say, a thirty-something blogger and campaigner for PEN. But not from a young teenager. Outbursts, inarticulacy, immature, ill-thought-out and prejudiced views are as much a part of adolescence as spots, puberty, resentment of your parents, and fancying inappropriate, unattainable people.
The great thing about voicing ridiculous and ill-considered political views, is that people challenge them. There is nothing like being scrutinised on a stupid, unsophisticated political position to realise that life and politics are nuanced and complex.
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 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 →
BNP Chairman Nick Griffin MEP has just caused a bit of a Twitter storm by publishing the address of a gay couple who sued a Christian B&B couple who refused them board.
I spend a lot of time on this blog defending the right of bigots and racists to say horrible things, online and in person. However, I think this superficially anodyne tweet might actually cross the line into territory I would not defend.
Why? Well, first, there is an invasion of privacy. Griffin is a public figure with a large Twitter following. The couple in question have a reasonable expectation that their address will not be broadcast.
More importantly, the tweet could be considered inciting violence and harassment. In a followup, Griffin said a ‘British Justice Team’ (whatever that is) should visit to give them ‘a bit of drama’. If it were my address that had been published, I would feel harassed and terrorised and probably go and stay elsewhere for a few days.