Thursday, 16 April 2015

Thoughts On Online Speech

For a while now there has been growing concern (in some quarters more than others) about standards of online speech - especially around areas of social media like Twitter. Several notable and, to my knowledge usually female, people have come out and said they have received death or rape threats. Some people have even reported threats to the Police and people have been sent to jail - usually for a few weeks. Concerned and august organs like The Guardian newspaper then write articles about the phenomenon of "hate speech" and "death threats" online and a certain narrative gets created and mutually re-inforced. In addition to this, "trolls" are said to be a problem, although defining this term is often a problem in itself when the word seems to be applied both to people with bad manners, making an inappropriate or unwelcome comment, and more organised individuals looking to spoil or derail a specific conversation.

Now this is just a personal blog and I'm not here to solve or dissect this problem in any overarching way. This blog is just a place for me to write down some of my thoughts as they occur to me in real time. As such, you shouldn't hold me to much of a standard of debate. I will say what I think on the subject and it should simply be taken as my point of view. And, for starters, I do believe that people should be allowed to have points of view, even, whisper it quietly, points of view that do not agree with yours. You, by the way, are also allowed to have a point of view. And it doesn't have to agree with mine. This is a basic tenet of the idea of free speech, the idea that people are allowed to have points of view and express them publicly. This applies expressly, if not in an exemplary sense, to exactly those views that you don't agree with yourself. "Free speech" is not merely speech you agree with. Its all the speech you don't agree with too.

So what I intend to do now is just jot down a few points related to this whole phenomenon. I make no claim that they are my final thoughts on the matter. If anything, they are more the points and questions that come to my mind when I read about this subject or hear of yet more example of trolls and hate speech. They are outlined in random order and may be considered as goads to further thought.

1. When is a death threat not a death threat? When the person concerned only wishes you dead and doesn't personally threaten to kill you.

There is a case in the UK at the moment of TV personality, Sue Perkins. Perkins allegedly received a few tweets wishing her dead after she was touted to present the very popular TV show, Top Gear. The story itself, according to Perkins, was entirely false and she has no interest in the job anyway. Nevertheless, some fans of the show seem to have reacted strongly and in haste and tweeted her on her public Twitter account. I personally have seen a couple of examples where people wished her to be "burnt at the stake". No tweet, that I have read, was from someone saying that they personally wanted to kill her and neither Perkins nor anyone else has produced any such tweet. However, quite predictably, this has been reported and written up by many as "Sue Perkins received death threats". And this happens in other cases too. The problem is these people are quite often not receiving death threats at all. They are simply receiving unpleasantness from people saying the equivalent of "I don't like you" in a more extreme way.

Then there is the further issue of credibility. Do murderers and rapists regularly broadcast their intent to commit rape and murder online to the target of their attacks? Doesn't that strike you as making any threat less and not more credible? You may say that we have no way of knowing and its better to be safe than sorry. But when we live in a world where a person upset that he can't take a flight from a regional airport because it is closed due to the weather - and then tweets that they need to get their shit together or he will blow it up - and is arrested and convicted of a crime, we need to be wary. People talk on social media in the vernacular. They talk and act like they would with their mates but often to people who aren't their mates at all. They are strangers. Add into this equation the fact that tone of voice, humour and all the general clues that would usually come from knowing the speaker are not present in 140 character social media snippets. It sets up a strange kaleidoscope of words and understandings. The possibility to take things the wrong way or give them the wrong weight is obvious. We should be all the more wary knowing that some people are more than ready to have their outrage triggered at a moment's notice.

I also find it relevant that public discourse, especially the distorted online version of that phenomenon, is becoming infantilized. These days, and I must say I see this agenda often being pressed by those with feminist leanings, people are encouraged to be victims. They are encouraged to be naive and irresponsible. They are told it is their right and that if anything unpleasant happens to them it is absolutely not their fault or, more importantly, their responsibility. To put the focus on the responsibility of people for themselves and their own safety, we are told, is "victim-blaming". In my view this is both stupid and childish. As I see it, everyone is responsible for the choices they make and so a constituent part of any consequences that occur. In a world where people can choose A or B to choose one or the other is to contribute to a chain of events. There is no rhetorical way to escape this inevitability. In the same way, taking part in public forums or social media is a choice you make. In doing so, you open yourself up to what is out there. On Twitter you can even lock your account so that your comments are reserved for those of your choosing and no one but who you choose can reply to them. If you choose not to do so you contribute to the possibility that people might send you unpleasant messages. You are not to be blamed for being sent such a message. But you did contribute to it being possible in the first place.

2. Its a public world.

The world of public discourse is changing, as we might expect it to in a world now awash with mobile devices and giant social media corporations. These corporations want to lock us all in to their platforms and they want us to take part because we are their product that they want to sell. What this means is that, like never before, you have access to so many more people in the world. No longer is it true, as it was in the 1970s when I was a boy, that all you know is contained within a few miles of home. Now you can speak to people from all over the world. You can also tell them that you hate them, they are fat and that you hope they burn to death. But is this a new phenomenon? Did people only start being nasty to each other with the rise of the mobile phone and the Twitter app? No, they didn't. I remember telling a girl in my class "You smell!" when I was 8 or 9 at school. Other school friends brought me to tears at age 11 by telling me that the cassette recorder my mum had bought me for Christmas was "shit". I've seen people be told to "Fuck off!" in football grounds across the country. I've heard racist and sexist things (unfortunately) in basically every public place you can think of. I've heard derogatory comments and conversations in every workplace I've ever had.

And this is the issue. In our modern world besides things being thrown more open they have also become more enclosed. Once more the online world puts a microscope on this phenomenon. There are now micro-groupings for every interest (and none) imaginable. There is probably a group somewhere for "Muslim baseball fans who like to wear green jeans whilst playing ping pong". Strangely, it seems that more openness also creates more enclosedness. Try butting in (or, more generously, offering a comment) on some conversations online and be prepared to be bitten as the insiders of the group concerned protect their turf and bite back at you for daring to offer a point of view. The attitude seems to be "Who are you? Sod off!" The internet era is the era of partisanship and, crucially, now everyone can play. And they do. It seems to me that, more often than not, it generates more heat than light. When you might think that more opportunities for communication would bring more togetherness they, in fact, bring as much disharmony as harmony. But there's a good reason why this shouldn't surprise anyone.

The point I would make here is that this is a public world. Its not a world where you can go into your little nest where every truth is yours and every heresy is anything you don't agree with. Its not a world where you will never hear something you don't like or where no one will ever call you names or say something nasty to you. Is the wish for this kind of bubble world really a realistic wish? Why is someone saying "I hope you die" in the street or at work in a tiff or disagreement any more or less serious than if they say it in a tweet? Are they not equal statements? (And, to my mind, equally ephemeral and throwaway?) It seems to me that a great many of these public threats are not threats at all. They are the equivalent of saying "You are a cunt!" I can appreciate that to some this may be upsetting. I've been upset by online comments myself when a passing You Tube viewer insulted the quality of something I had uploaded. And it stayed with me for a day or two as well. But this is not to make every negative comment a genuine or credible threat of anything. People insult you in the street and keep walking. Most online things, I suggest, are exactly the same.

3. Beware the censor.

For many people who I don't agree with all these things I have been talking about call for action - legislative action and Police action. We are told by some that people who say bad things should be arrested and put in jail. Others suggest that the Internet should only be accessed by those prepared to use their real identity in a verifiable way. Anonymity is seen by many as a problem because people can spray their insulting comments about freely and be seen to get away with it. This isn't necessarily the case of course. People have been arrested and convicted in the UK of sending malicious communications, notably to feminists Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy. These women, and others, often write articles full of censorious and moralistic ideas to the extent that, in a nutshell, they want to control the Internet according to guidelines, and morality, that suit them.

But can you control someone being obnoxious on the Internet? Its worth noting that it is not illegal to either be on the Internet or obnoxious. And both things, it seems to me, are equally impossible to control in the final analysis. Many people who get upset at insulting and threatening speech online seem to have the attitude that the world should run on the basis that only things they like should be allowed to happen. This usually involves them being allowed to walk round in a bubble, shielded from the harsh, nasty world outside. But this is not a realistic (or achievable) desire. The problem is not technology. The problem is people. People can be arseholes. Most people, in fact, are arseholes some of the time. Some more so than others. You can't legislate or moralise that away. This attitude, added to the one that infantilizes people and turns them into victims of ever growing hordes of unscrupulous people, is not a solution either. All that happens if you go down that road is that you generate a never-ending rolling wave of more and more examples of the phenomenon. Of course, in their determination to show how horrible life is for them, that is exactly what some people want to do. But that is a destructive and not a constructive agenda. Fundamentally, you cannot control speech by censoring it. It would be like trying to hold back the waves with your hands.

4. Its Time To Be An Adult.

At the end of the day I think people need to stand up and be responsible for themselves. I don't condone any form of hate speech, death threats or rape threats. I appreciate this is a serious issue. My attitude would tend to be that if such things happen in some kind of flare up then the best response is to let it go. (People can and do have disagreements and they do share harsh words.) This is what Sue Perkins seems to have done. She doesn't seem to have taken it too seriously but has just walked away from her account for a while to let the dust settle. I think that's probably wise. Of course, if you are getting repeated comments from the same person then that moves into harassment territory and it becomes more serious. The same is true if you happen to know the person. It is true that you can never know for sure if a threat of something is serious but, as I said above, I would tend to regard threats as not credible if someone is wanting to see you die in some outlandish way ("burnt at the stake") or is making the point of telling you in advance via a publicly accessible social network. This is especially true if this is just some random out of the blue. There are remedies available for those who feel under attack or threatened such as the blocking or locking available on Twitter or involving the authorities if its believed to be something more serious.

But should every nasty, insulting, threatening or obnoxious comment be referred to the Police though? No. You can't legislate for douche bags or for the obnoxiousness of the human race. To be in a public space is to acknowledge you relinquish some control over your environment and to open yourself up to interactions with others you may not desire, whether online or offline. That is just common sense. At the end of the day, if you don't want to hear what other people have to say its in your hands to do something about it. Be responsible for yourself and accept that you live in a world you don't always control.

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