Battle of Ideas 2016
Comedy and censorship: Are you kidding me?
When: 23 October, 10-11:30am
From hate speech to cyber-bullying: Is social media too toxic?
When: 22 October, 4-5:15pm
Earlier this year, Labour MP Yvette Cooper kicked off #ReclaimTheInternet, a cross-party campaign against misogynist abuse online.
The reception was mixed at best. Many people were excited and thankful for the initiative, and it isn’t hard to see why when you look the racist abuse and threats of violence being thrown at people for expressing an opinion online. Right on cue, the MPs behind the campaign have been subjected to a barrage of abuse (some legal, some not).
The impact of online abuse is poorly understood, and perhaps most poorly understood by those who do it, but the harm it can do is unquestionable. Research by The Guardian into abusive comments included interviews with journalists who spoke about an emotional and physical toll, though this can only scratch the surface. It isn’t difficult to find examples of people who have taken their own lives after campaigns of online harassment. Tragically, it is when the person subjected to abuse doesn’t have the platform to speak out against their harassment that we tend only to hear about it when headlines become epitaphs.
But for many, there was something sinister about #ReclaimTheInternet. The thought police were back. It’s one of the internet’s favourite narratives. There is a strong libertarian tradition online, particularly on social media, always watchful for attempts by overbearing states to impinge on free speech online.
One well-followed advocate for free speech on Twitter, @SkipLicker, was vehement in his opposition. “Free speech means freedom from Government censorship,” he tweeted. “Not freedom from ridicule because you talk bollocks.”
The thing is, he’s absolutely right: social media as a public forum has a vital role in our democracy. It is a public forum for debate, where hundreds of thousands of British citizens engage in politics. It is a platform for users to voice their political opinions, whatever the shade. It is a channel through which those who govern us can be taken to task. If you need more evidence about the democratic role social media can play, take a look at the countries which suppress it.
Ridicule, though. Not harassment.
A favourite cartoon that emerges whenever someone mentions abuse online is of a woman shovelling manure over a wall and then complaining when manure comes the other way. It’s quite funny, but it misses the point because frequently it isn’t an eye for an eye. If only it was: if for every opinion somebody saw online that they disagreed with, they responded in kind, the internet would be an (even more) brilliant place. But death threats aren’t responding in kind, and death threats aren’t “trolling”.
Over the last couple of years, the “internet troll” has emerged as a catch-all term for unpleasantness on the internet. Everything from sustained, sexually aggravated harassment to posting atheist arguments in a Christian chatroom is lumped together under an evocative, easily digestible insult.
This wasn’t always the case.
Plenty of the most dedicated trolls themselves lament the good old days when trolling was really trolling. Cleverly crafted images or phrases – offensive, controversial, but legal – stirred up horrified reactions. Trolls might work for weeks at a time, lurking in a forum or comments section, perfecting the perfect taunt that might start the biggest argument, then sit back and watch the carnage unfold. The very word emerged in the early 1990s from the idea of “trolling” a line with some juicy bait and seeing who bites.
Trolling is, in many ways, a firmly established British tradition. An episode of Brass Eye or a copy of the Private Eye should be enough to convince you of that. Nobody does satire like us Brits, and there’s still plenty of it online.
@GeneralBoles is a photoshop supremo who rose to prominence during last year’s general election, a newspaper cartoonist for the Twitter generation. @WeahsCousin attributes fake quotes to footballers, some of which end up copied into print by journalists lax in checking their sources.
The examples of clever trolling are endless. In 2010, a neo-nazi march in Bavaria found themselves being “sponsored” for their walk with all the money going to anti-extremist organisations. Bananas were served as refreshments: “Mein Mampf! (My Munch!)”.
More recently, supporters of Bernie Sanders found themselves facing placard-touting trolls raising money for the victims of socialism at one of his rallies.
I have previously written in defence of trolling. It might be satirical. It might be expressing a controversial opinion or offensive remark, hoping to provoke a reaction. It might be Sunderland fans flying a 30ft banner over St James’ Park gloating at their rivals’ relegation.
I spoke to Old Holborn, one of Twitter’s longest-standing and most highly-followed free speech advocates once described by the Daily Mail as “Britain’s vilest troll”. Trolling, according to Old Holborn, “is the (not so) gentle art of carefully selecting an irresistible morsel of bait to seduce a willing prey into breaking their own freedom of speech censorship or personal values of good taste. It exposes hypocrisy, self-denial and the inner soul and values of the individual. If your opinions are laughable to some, expect some to publicly laugh at them.”
But trolling isn’t rape threats.
“Threats are not trolling,” writes Old Holborn. “Rape, violence and murder remain the basis of intimidation and are designed to silence. We worship robust banter, not the cold, obedient silence of terror. Laugh a little, prod, poke and provoke. We’re all the richer for genuine trolling.”
What happened to the trolls of yore? They’re still out there and they still play an important role in reminding us that offensive or unpleasant opinions that test the limits of free speech are vital in a society that prides itself on free public debate. In an age where students are demanding safe zones from opinions they disagree with and algorithms ensure we only see content we like, it’s vital we encounter stuff we don’t agree with.
But we have plenty of people who don’t deserve the title of troll. Hangers-on – wannabe trolls, perhaps – whose recourse to crude threats of violence or recourse to racist or misogynistic abuse bear no resemblance to the trolling of old. It’s a shame that trolling has come to mean this because it has muddied the waters on what is OK to say online and what isn’t. I would be surprised if those trolls who do look to provoke, ridicule and satirise didn’t feel the same, particularly as I know some have been the subject of death threats and threats to their families and children.
Free speech has been debated for centuries but it has never been an absolute right. Even the First Amendment, the Holy Grail, has limitations on what you’re allowed to say. Our own British law says that the standards of an “open and just multi-racial society” has no space for racially-aggravated abuse.
The free speech absolutist is out of step with the society they claim to advocate for.
And yet what do we do about encroachments? What do we do when justified criticism is silenced as “bullying” or “abusive” or “offensive”? How about when an epidemic of safe spaces outgrow any pretence to protection and become tools of censorship and suppression? Or when sharing a platform with somebody is suddenly tantamount to endorsing them, perhaps the most ludicrous and contradictory charge levelled at public figures lately?
We must call it out. We ought to continue to push against the borders of acceptability, embrace the offensive and celebrate the satirical. We must seek out and confront opposing viewpoints, ever more difficult in a world where algorithms and laziness drive us into echo chambers of consenting views.
But we ought to pick our battles.
We live in a world where the young are less comfortable than ever with free speech. Convincing them that we need to be allowed to racially abuse people online is a waste of breath and it risks alienating them further.
Instead, we need to speak to them of the importance of dissenting opinion. We need to explain how it differs from abuse. We need to stress the importance of the offensive and being offended. We need to encourage them to actually engage with something they disagree with and reject it, not stifle it before it speaks a word. Rather than reacting angrily to any attempt to make the internet a better place, those with libertarian beliefs might do well to pick their battles, to protect that which is most important.
We need to stand up for satire, for controversial opinions, for being offensive, for the good trolls. We don’t need to stand up for rape threats.
Alex Krasodomski-Jones is a researcher for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media CASM at Demos, a British cross-party think tank.