Despite the best efforts of the US and UK governments, the English speaking world has reasonable levels of freedom of speech. Usually we can criticise the authorities without fear of being carted off to the local Gulag, and, although we know some monitoring does take place, our web activity is free from interference unless it is illegal e.g. terrorism, paedophilic, personally threatening or inciting hatred. Compare our situation with certain regimes around the world and we already have levels freedom that we should cherish.
Recently we have seen some twitter users launch a concerted campaign of abuse against the women’s right campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez who campaigned for a non-royal woman to be on British bank notes. Her success provoked a storm of unsavoury tweets which threatened her with rape, bombs and torture. “The overwhelming feelings are exhaustion and anger,” said Caroline Criado-Perez of her experience during the last week. “And, you know, every now and then great fear. Because I know people are trying to find my address and they are people who are threatening to rape and kill me.” Anyone, particularly women defending Criado-Perez came in for similar abuse – Bomb threats on Twitter made against female journalists, Labour MP Stella Creasey receives rape threats on Twitter – and historian Mary Beard was also abused. The police are now starting to track down and arrest the worst perpetrators, but a lower level of trolling seems to be persisting.
Suggestions from troll-in-chief, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, that the victims should simply leave twitter are unhelpful and defeatist because they effectively close off the freedom of the victims to interact in public cyberspace.
Locally, the tragic suicide of 14 year old Hannah Smith was blamed on bullying on the teen social network ask.fm and the family’s grief has not been helped by a tribute Facebook page being hijacked by trolls making inappropriate comments.
We can’t sacrifice our freedoms because of the cowardly actions of the socially inadequate. Laws are already in place to cover the worst threats of violence and incitement. Suggestions from troll-in-chief, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, that the victims should simply leave twitter are unhelpful and defeatist because they effectively close off the freedom of the victims to interact in public cyberspace. The police are starting to take seriously comments that carry genuine threats, however they cannot practically do anything about the volume of lower level abuse.
This is where the website providers must play a more active role. For example twitter has moved to clarify its rules on abusive behaviour and drafted in extra staff to handle attacks by trolls. It has said it plans to make reporting abuse easier by bringing a “report abuse” function already available on the iPhone app version of the micro-blogging site to other phones and platforms.
These are welcome developments and the Internet remains a wonderful tool for free speech and getting messages out into the wider world. However to paraphrase Voltaire (and yes, Uncle Ben from Spider-Man) – “With great freedom, comes great responsibility”, and we are free to say what we like but we still have a responsibility to stay within the law and social constraints: if you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face don’t say it online!