Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme

The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.

I was invited onto the BBC Victoria Derbyshire TV programme today to discuss the issue, alongside Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad; and Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and who has been taunted and harassed by the InfoWars website and its supporters. Continue reading “Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme”

Someone called the police

In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.

When Yale student Lolade Siyonbola fell asleep in the library while writing an essay, someone called the police. When Tenessee real-estate developer inspected a house in Memphis, someone called the police. When Oakland resident Onsayo Abram set up a barbeque in the park, someone called the police.

Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.

Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).

But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties. Continue reading “Someone called the police”

Name-alikeys, Revisited

A long time ago I wrote a post about other people named Robert Sharp. This was prompted by the fact that some guy wearing my name was running for Congress in the USA.

Nothing provokes as much introspection as your own personal homonym achieving something.

For some reason I didn’t link to the pop culture reference point for this, Are You Dave Gorman?

Since then I have created a Twitter list of other Robert Sharps, which I tautologically consider to be a form of narcissistic worldliness. Astonishingly the list contains not one but two professional wrestlers.

I have actually met Rob Sharp and the world did not explode, and I have also chatted on social media with Robert Sharp.

However, a recent Google search threw up a few faces of which I had not been aware. Here they are, in alphabetical order—click on the photographs to read more about each of them.

Academia

Robert Sharp, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Manhattan College
Robert Sharp, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Manhattan College – New York, USA
Dr Robert Sharp, Instrument Scientist, ANU
Dr Robert Sharp, Instrument Scientist, ANU – Canberra, Australia
Robert Sharp, Math teacher and SF author, Nevada
Robert Sharp, Math teacher and SF author – Nevada, USA
Robert Sharp, Doane University
Robert Sharp, Community Directoy, Doane University – Nebraska, USA
Robert Sharp, CSN Financial Services
Robert Sharp, Financial Services at the College of Southern Nevada – Nevada, USA
Robert Sharp, Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Missouri - Columbia, Missouri, USA
Robert Sharp, Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Missouri – Columbia, Missouri, USA
Robert Sharp, Historian - Staffordshire, UK
Robert Sharp, Historian – Staffordshire, UK
Robert Sharp, the Art Institute of Chicago
Robert Sharp, the Art Institute of Chicago – Illinois, USA
Robert Sharp, has an unwavering passion for and dedication to the student body, which is why he wants to run for Student Body President
Robert Sharp, has an unwavering passion for and dedication to the student body, which is why he wants to run for Student Body President – Kansaa, USA

Lawyers

Robert D. Sharp, litigation attorney at Belin McCormick, Des Moines, IA, USA
Robert Sharp, litigation attorney at Belin McCormick – Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Robert Sharp, founder, Solicitors Agency Service, Leeds, UK
Robert Sharp, founder, Solicitors Agency Service – Leeds, UK

Architecture and Design

Robert Sharp, Architect, the New Urban Guild
Robert Sharp, Architect, the New Urban Guild – Arkansas, USA
Robert Sharp, CEO of Robert Sharp Associates
Robert Sharp, CEO of Robert Sharp Associates – Rapid City, South Dakota, USA

Medicine

Dr Robert Sharp
Dr Robert Sharp, Orthopedic Surgeon – Tamworth, Northern Territory, Austrailia

These guys…

Robert Sharp, convicted manufacturing a controlled substance and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

Yeah, I know, I’m white and in prison for selling crack, it’s a funny story, write me and I’ll tell you all about it. [link]

Robert B. Sharp, South Carolina.
Robert Sharp, charged in 2012 with sexually assaulting a minor. Charged in 2017 with two counts of attempted kidnapping – South Carolina, USA

There are dozens more mugshots of various men named Robert Sharp listed on Mugshots.com. Lots of drug possession, sex offenders and a couple of DUIs.

Military

Rear Admiral Robert D. Sharp, Office of Naval Intelligence
Rear Admiral Robert Sharp, Office of Naval Intelligence – Washington D.C., USA
Robert Sharp, Associate Professor, National Defence University
Robert Sharp, former British Army officer and Associate Professor, National Defence University – Washington D.C., USA
Robert Sharp, Chief Operations Officer at The Corpus Christi Army Depot - Corpus Christi, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Chief Operations Officer at The Corpus Christi Army Depot – Corpus Christi, Texas, USA

Financial Services

Robert Sharp, Valuation Consulting, London
Robert Sharp, Valuation Consulting – London, UK
Robert Sharp, CEO, Orca Pay Group
Robert Sharp, CEO, Orca Pay Group – Hertfordshire, UK

Business and Tech

Robert Sharp, Group Executive Virgin Australia Airlines - Australia
Robert Sharp, Group Executive Virgin Australia Airlines – Australia
Robert Sharp, co-founder, OUT Adventures
Robert Sharp, co-founder, OUT Adventures – Toronto, Canada

Interestingly, another Robert Sharp (the one who teaches at Manhattan College, above) had a photo taken at Machu Picchu in pretty much exactly the same spot.

Robert T. Sharp, Executive Vice President, Emerson
Robert Sharp, Executive Vice President, Emerson Electrical – St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Robert Sharp, Founder, LifeFlix - Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Robert Sharp, Founder, LifeFlix – Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Robert Sharp, winemaker - California, USA
Robert Sharp, winemaker – California, USA
Robert Sharp, Terminal Manager at Oak Harbour Freight Lines - Washington, USA
Robert Sharp, Terminal Manager at Oak Harbour Freight Lines – Washington, USA
Robert Sharp, Greenhouse Designer - Yukon, Canada
Robert Sharp, Greenhouse Designer – Yukon, Canada
Robert Sharp, Nissan Car Dealer - Tennessee, USA
Robert Sharp, Nissan Car Dealer – Tennessee, USA

Artists

Robert Sharp, musician
Robert Sharp, musician – Huddersfield, UK

Here’s one of Robert’s tracks, ‘Searching the Stars’.

Robert Sharp, Stained Glass Artist - Birmingham, Alabama
Robert Sharp, Stained Glass Artist – Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Robert Sharp, DJ and music producer
Robert Sharp, DJ and music producer – Ireland
Robert Sharp, DJ - Perth, Australia
Robert Sharp, DJ – Perth, Australia

Here’s a mix by Rob from 2011 entitled ‘One Nineteen’.

Robert Sharp, musician – Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Robert Sharp, Emmy award-winning Producer of MATH PARK - California, USA
Robert Sharp, Emmy award-winning Producer of MATH PARK – California, USA
Robert Sharp, Artist, Programmer, Graphic Designer, Photographer & Web Designer - Oregon, USA
Robert Sharp, Artist, Programmer, Graphic Designer, Photographer & Web Designer – Oregon, USA

Technicians

Robert Sharp, Technician at Republic Heating and Air Conditioning Inc, Dallas, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Technician at Republic Heating and Air Conditioning Inc, Dallas, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Robert Sharp Repair Work, Mississippi, USA
Robert Sharp, Robert Sharp Repair Work, Mississippi, USA

There are a few guys who only showed up on LinkedIn.

Robert Sharp, Plant Controller at Rea Magnet Wire
 Customer Account Manager at VTL Group
Robert Sharp, Customer Account Manager at VTL Group – Wakefield, UK
Robert Sharp, Manager at Price Waterhouse consultants - Washington D.C., USA
Robert Sharp, Manager at Price Waterhouse consultants – Washington D.C., USA.

Pretty sure this is the same Robert Sharp who got married to Beth in July 2017.

Robert Sharp, Business Consultant, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Business Consultant, Texas, USA

The Barman

Robert Sharp, Barman and author
Robert Sharp, Barman and author

The Bridegroom

I don’t know anything about Robert Sharp, other than he lives in Texas, USA and got married to Witney in November 2017.

Witney Elliot and Robert Sharp
Witney Elliott and Robert Sharp – Texas, USA

And finally, this gentleman…

Robert Sharp, panhandler, Vancouver
Robert Sharp, panhandler – Vancouver, Canada

This list operates on strict living Name-alike criteria. No Robins. No ‘e’ or ‘s’ on the end of Sharp. No Roberts or Sharps as middle names. This means that we are spared the mugshots for Garret Robert Sharp, Theodore Robert Sharp and Robert Sharp Bone. But it also means that the beautiful abdominal muscles of Robert Sharpe, Male Model, cannot be featured. Furthermore, I only include living Robert Sharps in this list, so we miss out the many dozens of Robert Sharps listed on memorial and obituary websites, including First World War Seaman Robert Sharp Jnr, and the NASA rocket scientist Robert P. Sharp.

Continue reading “Name-alikeys, Revisited”

I Told You So! When Media and Tech Companies Fail To Self-Regulate, Governments Step In

Following the revelations about the harvesting of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing worries about abuse and threats on social media, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last week began a new inquiry entitled ‘Is It Time To Regulate The Internet?’. At the witness sessions so far, peers have opened by asking each expert to comment on whether they favour self-regulation, co-regulation, or state-regulation.

The instinct to regulate is not limited to the U.K. Late last year senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said:

You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it… Or we will.

With the reader’s indulgence, these developments remind me of a point I made a few years ago at ORGcon2013, when I was speaking on a panel alongside Facebook VP for Public Policy EMEA, Richard Allan:

If we as the liberal free speech advocates don’t come up with alternative ways of solving things like the brutal hate speech against women, the hideous environment for comments that we see online, then other people are going to fix it for us. And they’re going to fix it in a draconian, leglislative way. So if we want to stop that happening, we need to come up with alternative ways of making people be nicer!

An audio recording of these remarks is on SoundCloud.

Its clear that neither Facebook, nor anyone in the technically minded audience at ORGCon, managed to solve the problem I raised. And lo! The legislators have arrived.

Social Exclusion at the Top

Ant McPartlin’s drink driving conviction and record £86,000 fine in Monday gives me an excuse to finally publish a post that has been sitting in blog purgatory for eight years.

Ant’s car crash is the latest example of fabulously wealthy TV and sports stars behaving badly in vehicles. Yaya Touré was handed a record-at-the-time £54,000 fine for drink-driving in 2016. Further back in time, we may recall the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was clocked doing 104mph in his Lamborghini, and John Terry has a penchant for parking in disabled bays.

Continue reading “Social Exclusion at the Top”

El Miracle de Miralles

I wrote this whimsy in a fugue state one evening in October after seeing this Tweet. Thank you Paul for the inspiration.

To say that the world was shocked when the Scottish Parliament building was suddenly transported 1000 miles into the centre of Barcelona, would be something of an understatement.

No similar, verifiable phenomenon had ever before occurred in human history. The field of physics was thrown into disarray, when not one scientist could offer an explanation for why a building with a footprint of some four acres should suddenly, and without warning, disappear from its site beneath the cragged, volcanic mountain of Arthur’s Seat, and reappear on the site of the Mercat Santa Caterina. Continue reading “El Miracle de Miralles”

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

Notes On A ‘Civilised’ Debate

Mary Beard
Historian Professor Mary Beard posted a picture of herself in tears after being accused of racism

Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.

This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing

I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.

Continue reading “Notes On A ‘Civilised’ Debate”

The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909

Votes for Women, you say? Today is the perfect time for me to share some extracts from The World of an Insignificant Woman by Catherine Thackray, which is a biography of my great-grandmother Hilda Marjory Sharp (nee Ingle).

Marjory (as she was known) was born in 1882 and was a teacher and social worker. In 1909, when she was 27,  she secured work as a paid organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, organising meetings, rallies and petitions. Her activities are detailed in Chapter 4 of the book. The excerpt below is taken from pages 78 to 81.

What is fascinating and slightly depressing about this account is how many of the free speech challenges faced by the NUWSS and Suffragettes remain today. The problem of people shouting down political speakers with whom they disagree still persists one hundred years later. And the comment from the Men’s League that they never suffered the same level of abuse as the women is echoed by our contemporary experience of female politicians receiving far more abuse on social media than their male counterparts.

You can buy The World of an Insignificant Womanonline as hardback or paperback, or download a free eBook in EPUB, Kindle, or PDF format.

Continue reading “The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909”

Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”