Twitter is a bizarre medium. The internet has allowed human beings’ affinity for self-advertisement to be harnessed like never before. This dramatic change in the way we conduct inter-personal relations has advanced our capacity for communication enormously. Moreover, the likelihood of greater cultural interdependence for anybody in the public spotlight has brought a much richer set of interactions to the forefront of people-centric news.
Almost anybody who enjoys much public attention at all, from politicians to musicians, writers to sports players, has at any given time both the ability to thrust their opinion into the spotlight and the uncomfortable knowledge that they can be picked up on and called out for whatever they say, by any of their contemporaries. Indeed they will also be scrutinised by users from the general public. This issue of reciprocal exposure, as I will call it, can have negative effects, and does often. Ignorant or misguided tweets from even respectable public figures will be met with derision at best and fury at worst. But sometimes, completely innocent figures find themselves horribly persecuted by mobs of Twitter accounts, which is by no means welcome.
The great tragedy of Twitter, and the subject of this post, stems from this second type of backlash. Due to some particularly venomous occurrences some people cry out for much stronger monitoring and regulation for the site. When the public’s attention is focused on one individual or small group, that same idea of reciprocal exposure and the abuse of it can lead to unpleasant circumstances. While the site serves well for people championing a cause to spread their messages, their opponents can access them just as easily. Absurd and frankly disgusting behaviour has not been unknown in such cases, there being absolutely no filter as to what is allowed to feature as the content of a Twitter post.
The impetus for writing this post came from an instance of this behaviour which occurred in 2013 – I am speaking of the flood of abuse and harassment that women activists and MP’s faced during a period when a lot of public attention was directed towards the issue of equal recognition for women. Most of this attention revolved around a stirring campaign to install equality of representation for the genders in the Bank of England’s decision process when printing famous faces on banknotes. The figure at the head of the campaign was Caroline Criado-Perez, who has written frequently on the abhorrent fact that almost nothing is done to prevent the intimidation and persecution of people like her, in the spotlight for calling for positive social change. She suffered a campaign of rape and death threats for several weeks, and authorities did little to help.
Those like Ms Criado-Perez naturally feel that there needs to be a much greater level of policing in online environs like Twitter, so that people’s safety and mental sanctity might be preserved. And yet some, in the face of this horrendous treatment of good people, still defend Twitter and its users’ rights to publish whatever they like on grounds of free speech and free media. Twitter finds itself often at the centre of storms of controversy over these issues, since, as a company, it is providing the means for malicious individuals to hurt their targets. The company’s normal line is to apologise for the grief caused but state that it cannot do anything to influence the proceedings – importantly, it has claimed that “as an American company it is protected by the First amendment (guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press). This argument is of little comfort to those who feel that their very essence has been violated by another user’s remarks.
Nevertheless, what is intriguing about Twitter and the way it is abused in instances like this is that it can help us clarify an extraordinary amount as to what we mean when we talk about freedom of speech. Ms Criado-Perez has written, indeed very perceptively, that substantive freedom of speech is actually absent in a forum of debate where the powerful (those with the capacity to make threats – here, misogynists) can speak out much more loudly than the powerless. In any case, freedom of speech must also be protected for activists like her. Through campaigns of hate like the one she endured, opponents of any cause can silence it with force if they are violent and frightening enough. It is the role of authorities to ensure that the lawlessness of the jungle does not persist, and that substantive freedom, and equality of it, is safeguarded.
But what can we say about the comments made on Twitter towards people like Ms Criado-Perez, or towards vulnerable families and individuals who are enduring some loss and must withstand perpetual bullying and taunting by ‘trolls’, even beyond their ability to distort others’ freedom? There are two issues at work here. Largely, the type of threats involving rape, torture and death that were directed at her would be heavily prosecuted if made in a public forum in real space, instead of on the internet. We must be absolutely clear about what constitutes a crime in this sense and what is simply morally offensive. I believe that, often, the line should be drawn so that more is included in the latter – more on that in my closing paragraph. But if there is a shared understanding that actual assertions that ‘you will be raped by me tonight’ are beyond what is legally permissible, then the utmost effort should be invested into protecting the victims. (I recommend, if you are not particularly sensitive to such matters, that you read the threats made to Ms Criado-Perez, just to grasp for yourself the violence of these individuals – they can be found in the link to her thoughts on free speech).
However, the second issue arises almost immediately. Twitter features anonymity for its users. This is a massive problem for the implementation of consistent regulation, and needs to be addressed. It is simply not sustainable to have an environment of intelligent discussion and advertisement where arbitrary people can make disgusting contributions with impunity. A major reason why Twitter is left awkwardly in the crossfire during these controversies is that it operates on an international, universal plane – the internet. I do not wish here to propose a system of policing the internet – sadly I have not been inspired by a solution. But we urgently need to consider how to apply rules to this international forum, and that requires consensus on the freedom of speech debate first. This is all exceedingly difficult to achieve, but we need to start making an effort.
Finally, as an aside, I wish to offer some thoughts, mentioned above, on why we might wish to let just a bit more of the offense through than it may first seem. It is not that any of it is positive. Nor that the victims are not actually as outraged and scared as they seem. But a classical argument for freedom of speech claims that even outrageously false views should be voiced, because they will be seen as such in any debate and will merely solidify the case for the correct view. By no means wishing to belittle the suffering endured by Ms Criado-Perez, but I would just like to point out how much (extremely warranted) extra resolve and confirmation the battle against latent and explicit misogyny has received since her ordeal. Might it be slightly desirable for Twitter to retain just a little more hate within its posts than we are comfortable with, in order to shore up those ideals we have championed in the first place?