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.’
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.
Last week I was invited into the Sky News central London studio to discuss free speech and ‘trolling’ on social media. The segment had been prompted by a report by Sky journalist Martin Brunt into a ‘dossier’ of alleged abuse of Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing Madeleine. During the discussion I made the distinction between tweets that were abusive or threatening on the one hand, and others that were merely ‘offensive’. I cited the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on when to prosecute, and also warned at the development of ‘privatised censorship’ where different ideological groups use poorly-worded laws to threaten each other with prosecution. A viewer recorded the segment off the TV and uploaded it to YouTube.
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:
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.