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Twitter trolls, online mobs and “offensive” Facebook posts are constantly making headlines as authorities struggle to determine how to police social media. In a recent development, links posted on Facebook allow users to see which of their friends have “liked” pages, such as those representing Britain First, the British National Party and the English Defence League. When clicking the links, a list appears of friends who have liked the page in question. Many Facebook users have posted the links, with the accompanying message stating their intention to delete any friends found on the lists. One user wrote, “I don’t want to be friends, even Facebook friends, with people who support fascist political parties, so this is just a quick message to give you a chance to unlike the Britain First page before I un-friend you.” Tackling racism is admirable, but when the method is blackmail and intimidation, who is in the wrong? All information posted on Facebook could be considered as public property, but what are the ethical implications of users taking it upon themselves to police the online activity of their peers? When social media users group together to participate in online vigilantism, what implications are there for freedom of expression?
This online mob is exercising its right to freedom of expression by airing views about right wing groups. However, in an attempt to tackle social issues head on, the distributors of these links are unlikely to change radical right-wing ideologies, and more likely to prohibit right-wing sympathisers from speaking freely about their views. In exerting their right to free speech, mobs are at risk of restricting that of others. The opinions of those who feel targeted by online mobs won’t go away, but their voice will. The fear of losing friends or being labelled a racist backs them into a corner, where they are forced to act in a particular way, creating a culture of self-censorship. Contrary to the combating of social issues, silencing opinion is more likely to exacerbate the problem. If people don’t speak freely, how can anyone challenge extreme views? By threatening to remove friends or to expose far right persuasions, are the online vigilantes really tackling social issues, or are they just shutting down discussions by holding friendships to ransom?
Public shaming is no new tactic, but its online use has gone viral. Used as a weapon to enforce ideologies, online witch-hunts punish those who don’t behave as others would want them to. Making people accountable for their online presence, lynch mobs target individuals and shame them into changing their behaviour. The question is whether groups are revealing social injustices that would otherwise go unpunished, or whether they are using bullying tactics in a dictatorial fashion. The intentions of the mob in question are good; to combat racism. But does that make their methods justifiable? These groups often promote a “with us or against us” attitude; if you don’t follow these links and delete your racist friends, you must be a racist too. Naming and shaming those who don’t follow the cultural norm is also intended to dissuade others from participating in similar activities. Does forcing people into acting a certain way actually generate any real change, or is it simply an act of censorship?
With online mobs often taking on the roles of judge, jury and executioner, the moral implications of their activities are questionable. It may start as a seemingly small Facebook campaign such as this one, but what else could stem from that? One Facebook user commented, “Are you making an effort to silence your Facebook friends who are to the right of centre?” This concern that the target may become anyone with an alternative political view demonstrates the cumulative nature of online mobs. Who polices this activity and who decides when it has gone too far?
Comments under the Facebook posts in question invite plenty of support for the deletion of any friends who “like” far right groups, but very rarely does anyone question the ethics of this approach. No longer feeling they have to idly stand by, Facebook users may feel they can make an impact through strength in numbers and a very public forum. Do those who haven’t previously had a channel for tackling social issues suddenly feel they have a public voice? Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that absolutely everyone has the right to free speech, even those who hold extreme views. In a democracy, there may be political groups that offend us, but those groups still have a right to be heard. The route to tackling those views can’t be to silence them, but to encourage discussion.
BBC Radio Five Live’s Breakfast yesterday dutifully carried out its public service remit by interviewing Nick Griffin, the world’s most tedious Nazi demagogue, ahead of the European elections. Griffin’s British National Party does have some seats in the European Parliament, so is entitled to some airtime.
It was a dull interview. They always are. The BBC interviewers–in this case, Nicky Campbell–want to pick away at the BNP facade, but always somehow miss out on the really strange stuff. Long ago, I vowed that I would never write about Griffin without pointing out that he had written a pamphlet called “Who Are The Mindbenders?”, which is a catalogue of Jewish and Jewish people who work in the media. Griffin believes that these evil Jews (sorry, “Zionists”) are involved in an enormous plot to keep him–the saviour of the white race–out of the press and off the airwaves.
The conspiracist aspect of BNP policies is often overlooked, with the straightforward racism critiqued more heavily. So it was here. Campbell asked Griffin if he had a problem with black and mixed-race players representing England in the upcoming World Cup. Griffin, barely missing a beat, started complaining about BBC liberals smearing him and worse, denying him airtime.
“The BBC owes me 12 Question Times,” he declared, bemoaning his lack of invitations to appear on the BBC’s Thursday night festival of shouting from and at the telly.
It might have been interesting to delve into why Griffin felt he was being kept off Question Time, to see how long he would be able to maintain a line before going full Doctor Strangelove. As it was, we got only the superficial whine. The whine of the martyr-bully.
It is the background sound of our time. There is absolutely no one engaged in modern public life at any level at all who has not complained that they’ve been silenced, denied a platform, bullied into submission by a cruel cabal of agents of reaction or “the liberal agenda”, take your pick.
That is not to say people are not censored, even in the lovely modern 21st Century. It happens, quite a bit. People get locked up for saying stupid things on the internet that affront public sentiment. For years the libel laws restrained reporters, reviewers and the man on the Clapham Omnibus from saying what they really knew, or thought, or thought they knew. And no reader of this site needs to be told what happens in the less than democratic countries all over the world.
But there is actual censorship, and there is the claim to being censored, which are often two separate things. The BNP’s Griffin, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and every Blimp all the way to Westminster delights in telling us, at length, the things that nobody, least of all them, is allowed to talk about anymore.
Meanwhile, on the left and the pseudo-left, there is an obsession with “platforms”; who has one, who deserves one, who is denied one. Editors and writers who do their best to represent as many diverse views as possible are denounced routinely for the articles they haven’t published rather than the ones they have. Every oversight is evidence of a conspiracy rather than a cock-up. The right people are always being excluded by the wrong people. If only, if only everyone shut up and let me speak, we think, then I could sort everything out.
It’s ironic that many of those who argue most vehemently that they are being censored are the exact ones who demand everyone else shut up. Intersectional feminists who insist they are being excluded from debate demand that radical feminists be “no platformed”. Ukipers who claim they’re not allowed talk about immigration want the police to arrest their opponents in anti-racist movements. All of them, simultaneously, noisily, will end up invoking Niermoller’s “First they came for…” (with the possible exception of the BNP, who, stopping short of displaying sympathy with Communists or Jews, instead content themselves with calling their opponents “the real fascists”, as I once heard Griffin do at Oxford Union).
Why is this? Why does everyone want to be censored?
It’s possible that the simple reason is that we are constantly improving as a society. Triumphalism and privilege are pretty much taboo for many. On the face of it, most of the people reading this, and certainly the person writing it, are probably the luckiest sons of bitches to ever have walked the earth. But a combination of our still-relevant horror at the great wars of the last century, plus a greater ability to learn about the ideas and experiences of others, make most of us wary of revelling in our role as the victor. Instead, we prefer to be the underdog, because underdogs are more virtuous–victims rather than perpetrators. Martyrs, even.
The Nazis and Communists of the 20th century also believed they were more sinned against than sinning, but the difference was that they were certain they would show the world who was really boss. Now, no one outside the most extreme movements – Al Qaeda; or North Korean Juche – really wants to state that aim openly. We want to remain oppressed. Censorship is considered almost universally as a bad thing, so people on whom it is inflicted are good.
The background whine of censorship, emanating even from the powerful may just be the tiny price we pay for a world that is generally better and kinder.
I think we can live with that.
Arthur Kemp, the British National Party’s former foreign affairs spokesman and webmaster has forced several internet service providers (ISPs) to remove images of him apparently posing next to Nazi memorabilia from left wing and anti-fascist blogs. Kemp, originally from South Africa, claims the image is faked, and is being circulated maliciously by his ex-wife.
In his efforts to suppress the image, Kemp has employed a range of the tools available to the online censor, using takedown notices containing claims of copyright infringement and defamation.
Lots has been written here about the perniciousness of takedown notices. To put it simply: internet service providers have neither the time, the money, nor the inclination to fight or even investigate every single takedown request; they know that if they refuse to remove material, they may find themselves liable for the content and any breach of law involved in hosting the content. And much as we may think it should be, it is not the job of ISPs to defend free speech. It is their job to provide a service and make money. In one notable case study, Oxford University researchers set up sites containing text from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and then complained, in the guise of an independent organisation representing Mill’s estate, about copyright breach to the various ISPs hosting the sites. The UK-based ISP immediately complied with the takedown request.
Kemp’s claims do raise some questions. Firstly, he alleges that publication of the image breaches his copyright; he also claims that the photograph was taken (and subsequently altered) by a friend. In the UK at least, the copyright therefore belongs to his friend and not to Kemp.
Kemp, in his message to the host of blog Harry’s Place, claimed in addition that the image was defamatory. This brings up a fascinating political and legal question: is it actually defamatory to associate a former member of the fascist British National Party and the far-right South African Conservative Party with Nazism? And if so, why not sue the friend he claims created the image or the ex-wife he accuses of circulating it, rather than blogs that oppose his politics?
Kemp could, perhaps, in an effort to support his claim that the photo is merely Nazi-based larks among far-right friends, produce the original photograph. He has yet to do so.
But exoneration is not normally the issue in this type of case. It’s more about attempting to shut down debate and intimidate opponents with legalese.