Caitlin Moran: a response

Writer Caitlin Moran (Image Demotix/Ken Jack)

Writer Caitlin Moran (Image Demotix/Ken Jack)

Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s blog post on Twitter, threats and free speech this morning has gone viral. As I type, the page has crashed due to traffic overload, and apparently taken the entire Random House website with it.

The past week, online at least, has been dominated by discussions of misogynist abuse and threats on Twitter. I’m fighting a losing battle here in trying not to refer to this behaviour as “trolling”, but I think it’s still important to call abuse and threats what they are, rather than giving them a whole new category because they occur online. Calling it “trolling” undermines both trolling itself, in some ways a noble tradition, and what’s actually happening, which is women being threatened with rape by strangers.

Moran explains the exhausting and scary feeling of being attacked on Twitter, and the despair of being told that nothing can be done about it.

She goes on to quote Telegraph tech blogger Mic Wright, who earlier this week suggested that “This isn’t a technology issue – this is a societal issue”, suggesting he was simply dismissive of the idea that something should be done about misogyny online. Mic’s a friend, and a thoughtful writer. I don’t think he’s nearly as off-hand as Moran suggests, but I’ll leave it to you to read what he actually wrote. (While you’re at the Telegraph site, read Marta Cooper’s excellent piece as well)

Moran suggests “a fairly infallible rule: that anyone who says ‘Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!’ hasn’t the faintest idea what ‘freedom of speech’ actually means.”

This, I’m afraid, is where it gets personal. As someone who may as well change his name by deed poll to “Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!”, I can’t help feel Moran’s talking about me. And I think I’ve been a bit more considered, even while shouting about free speech.

Moran says:

“There is no such thing as ‘freedom of speech’ in this country. Since 1998, we’ve had Article 10 of the European Convention on “freedom of expression”, but that still outlaws – amongst many things – obscenity, sedition, glorifying terrorism, incitement of racial hatred, sending articles which are indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause anxiety or distress, and threatening, abusive or insulting words like to cause harassment, alarm or distress.”

Well, kind of. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights says this:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

(Part 2 is kind of depressing, isn’t it?)

What Moran categorises as being outlawed by Article 10 are in fact various other laws, most of which have been around in some form or other long before the 1998 Human Rights Act which established the ECHR in UK law. Laws such as the Communications Act and the Public Order Act which, Lord knows, have their problems, not least for social media users. Ask Paul Chambers.

Moran then says:

“As you can see, if you are suggesting that you are allowed to threaten someone on Twitter with rape or death under “freedom of speech”, then you do not – as predicted – have any idea what “freedom of speech” means. Because it’s prosecutable.”

Two things: One, I’m not sure anyone really has been shouting “free speech for rape threats”. Two, it is possible to shout “freedom of speech” even when things are prosecutable. In fact, it’s what free speech campaigners such as Index, English PEN and Article 19 spend most of our time doing. All governments protect free speech “within the law”. Usually, the law is the problem, as we’ve seen with issues from England’s libel laws right up to Russia’s brand new anti “gay propaganda” law.

Moran identifies a certain cynicism in people who say abuse and threats are simply part and parcel of the web (“NOTHING CAN CHANGE. THE INTERNET JUST IS WHAT IT IS!”) saying what they really mean is that they don’t want things to change.

This strand certainly exists. The old-style keyboard warrior who thinks the web is strictly for arguing and not cat videos and getting strangers to help you with the crossword, or generally doing nice things and learning more about other people and places. The internet, for them is SERIOUS BUSINESS, and girls and pansies who can’t take the heat should get out of the kitchen. Or go back to the kitchen. Definitely something about kitchens.

But there is also a good reason to be wary, or at least hesitant, about calls for changing the web. A lot of time spent defending free speech is not actually about defending what people say, but defending the space in which they can say it (I’ll refrain from misquoting Voltaire here). It may be idealistic, but we genuinely believe that given the space and the opportunity to discuss ideas openly, without fear of retribution, we’ll figure out how to do things better. Censorship holds society back. In fact, it’s the litmus test of a society being held back.

When the cry goes up that “something must be done”, it’s normally exactly the right time to put the brakes on and think very hard about what we actually want to happen. The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos. Last month David Cameron announced his plans to take all the bad things away, after the Daily Mail ran a classic something-must-be-done campaign against online porn.

There are, as Moran rightly points out, laws against threatening people with rape. Perhaps the police and the CPS should take these threats more seriously (I only say “perhaps” because I don’t know exactly what the various police forces have been doing about the various threats in the past week, not because I think it’s arguable that the police and CPS should take rape threats less seriously), but I’m wary of demanding more action on things that are already illegal. Some of the proposed Twitter fixes are interesting, but their implications need to be thought through, particularly how they could be used against people we like as well as people we don’t like.

After outlining her support for a boycott of Twitter on Sunday 4 August, Moran concludes:

“The main compass to steer by, as this whole thing rages on, doubtless for some months to come, is this: to maintain the spirit that the internet was conceived and born in – one of absolute optimism that the future will be better than the past. And that the future will be better than the past because internet is the best shot we’ve had yet for billions of people to communicate equally, and peacefully, and with the additional ability to post pictures of thatched houses that look ‘surprised.’”

On this, I agree absolutely. In fact, I pretty much wrote the same thing last week:

The current debate in the UK portrays the web overwhelmingly as the habitat of trolls, predators, bullies and pornmongers. And that, plus the police are watching too, ready to arrest you for saying the wrong thing.

I can’t help feeling that all this doom-mongering could be self fulfilling. If we keep thinking of the web as the badlands, that’s how it will be, like a child beset by endless criticism and low expectations. We need to talk more about the positive side of life online – the conversations, the friendships, the opportunities – if we’re going to get the most out of it.

We do need to protect and promote the good parts of life online. But we should be very careful of the idea that we can simply block out the negative aspects without having a knock-on effect. We’re in uncharted territory. The wrong turn could be very, very costly.

We can make Twitter better, but never perfect

take-back-twitterOn a BBC Newsnight discussion last night, panelists were asked if they felt that a watershed moment had been reached in our attitude to misogynist abuse and threats on Twitter.

It certainly feels like a moment: The increasing pervasiveness of social media in UK public life, combined with a resurgent young feminist movement (aided by social media), has led to this tumult of voices. We all seem to agree that something should be done about threats of rape, such as the ones experienced by Labour MP Stella Creasey, but the question is what?

Twitter yesterday released a statement saying they would look into introducing a report abuse button under all tweets. This, the company pointed out, is in fact already available on the Twitter iphone app, and will soon be rolled out on Android and desktop.

But some see a danger in this: a report button, they suggest, could easily be abused. Celebrity users with a large amount of followers could, for example, get their fans to report critics.

Political opponents and human and civil rights activists could easily be marked as abusive by users. I can imagine, for example, that Index on Censorship’s account would repeatedly be reported as abusive by, say, highly co-ordinated pro-Bahraini government tweeters.

What are the alternatives? Writing for the Guardian, Index contributor Jane Fae says that the focus is too much on the potential solutions Twitter can provide and not enough on the existing laws in place. Earlier this year, the Crown Prosecution Service released guidelines on social media user prosecutions. Index greeted these as by and large sensible (interesting to note that these came about because of a feeling that there were too many prosecutions of social media users; though there is a distinction between generally offensive material and specific, direct, threats).

Jane suggests a mechanism for reporting threats to the police, rather than Twitter:

“By all means, let’s have a button – but one that delivers reports of online abuse directly to the local police force, a bit like a security alarm, and not just to Twitter.

This relatively simple solution doesn’t exist yet but I’m currently coding a mock-up of one for Everyday Victim Blaming (EVB), a not-for-profit organisation set up to help stop violence against women. Installed on your computer, the button would let you generate instant email reports, detailing online abuse and asking the police to investigate. It should also copy a report back to EVB or another campaign group. If the police really are swamped, that, in itself, is a thing – and may finally prompt politicians to ditch the soundbite and think a bit deeper on this issue.

Matt Flaherty, the prolific and interesting tweeter and blogger on free speech issues, brings the issue back to Twitter with his idea of a “panic mode” to help tweeters beleaguered by coordinated attacks:

“My solution to this problem would be for Twitter to introduce something like a panic button that would immediately but temporarily place one’s account into a state where all mentions are blocked except for those coming from the followers and following lists. Twitter could also allow the user to open a case and have mentions logged against that case to help Twitter to take action against those who violate the terms. Twitter could also perhaps warn users attempting to put the panicked account into a mention or reply. Perhaps they could ask for confirmation either within the stream or in an email. An alternative would be to actually disallow the creation of the mention or reply. A blocked account is currently not allowed to perform a reply but it can use a mention. The same rules might apply here. The mention would still not be seen.”

It’s an interesting idea, particularly for the kind of abuse Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to: The campaigner was receiving 50 tweets an hour, suggesting a level of co-ordination. Flaherty’s proposal is a kind of advanced version of Don’t-Feed-The-Trolls, allowing a user to silence the angry mob directed at them.

The Daily Telegraph’s Marta Cooper (formerly of this parish), points out, however, that technological fixes are not the answer to societal problems:

“The offline world is still inhabited by some men who believe that women who voice an opinion must be put in their place. This is simply reflected and amplified online. Twitter did not create the misogynistic monsters that hurled grotesque tweets at Criado-Perez or send the same to other women on a regular basis; online platforms simply make it easier for these individuals to behave in appalling ways, and it is far harder to ignore published text than a hateful comment made by some Neanderthal in a pub.

“As with other societal problems, there is no quick fix – technological or otherwise – to something which has centuries’ worth of roots. It is far more valuable and worthwhile to expose hate for what it is and to debate why it occurs in the first place.”

Martin Belam makes a similar point here.

So what do we do? MPs have called Twitter executives to testify at the House of Commons: there is no doubt Twitter could have handled this better – the action of their New York based manager of journalism Mark S Luckie, blocking critical but polite UK voices, has been particularly unfortunate. No doubt the Twitter representatives will face demands from MPs to do something, and fast.

But we should be careful of quick fix solutions: the police are investigating the threats against Criado-Perez and Creasy; it is likely there will be prosecutions. This may seem frustratingly slow for some, but that is the pace of these things. The instant nature of social media means we often expect instant remedies for problems that are, as Ben Goldacre puts it, a little bit more complicated than that. Collective effort and thought on this should take precedent over the kind of kneejerk thinking about the web that too often dominates (see David Cameron’s “ban all the bad things” speech last week). We want the web to be free and diverse, but we also want the web to be,  as much as possible, a positive experience for people. This is the challenge we face, and our reactions over the issues raised in the past few weeks could have consequences for years to come. Together we can make the web better, but we should be wary of attempts to make it perfect.