Free Speech, “Rape Threats” and the War on Twitter

Control-freaks hate Twitter (cartoon released into the public domain by Carlos Latuff)
Control-freaks hate Twitter (cartoon released into the public domain by Carlos Latuff)

British leaders often invoke the idea that Britain is a “beacon of freedom”. Anyone paying attention though, will note that free speech has always been strongly restricted in the UK: far more so than in the United States, where it is constitutionally protected. Sadly, most British people seem to have a vague understanding of what free speech is, or why it is so important. This lack of love for free expression runs across the political spectrum; of the three large parties, only the Liberal Democrats show any real interest in protecting it.

But the rot isn’t just within the political parties. By demoting free speech behind “security”, “protecting children” or simply “protecting against offense”, our political leaders are merely reflecting the attitudes of their supporters. I’m regularly told, by both righties and lefties, that “free speech doesn’t mean all speech” or “free speech is all very well, but there must be lines in the sand”. Thus demonstrating they don’t understand the basic meaning of the word “free”. Protection of free speech must include “bad” speech, by definition. After all, the ideas that women should get the vote or that homosexuality should be decriminalised were once “dangerous” ideas.

Despite the regular self-congratulations about how free we are, Britain has always had a censorious, paternalistic culture towards “protecting” its citizens from the menace of genuinely free expression. Our television is the most censored in Europe, and our government regularly blocks bigoted loud-mouths from entering the country (as if we didn’t excel in creating our own bigoted loud-mouths). This situation was suddenly disrupted by the arrival of the consumer Internet around 20 years ago, which brought truly uncensored expression to British people for the first time. With the later appearance of Web 2.0 – meaning tools that allowed non-technical people to easily publish content – true free expression accelerated further.

So the powers that be – government, police and media corporations – have always had an unspoken desire to rein in online free speech; to take us back to the 1980s, when they could largely control the flow of information to the masses.

Twitter, a classic Web 2.0 creation, is quite probably the most free mass medium of them all. It represents America’s First Amendment distilled and productised. It allows people to publish what’s on their minds in an instant, and for popular ideas to be rapidly propagated. Twitter is the great leveller: it favours the unknown over the famous. Well-known individuals will always find themselves the butt of jokes and personal attacks, simply because they’re famous. On Twitter, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Needless to say, British authoritarians, control freaks and the fascist-minded hate Twitter. Our authorities have tried to keep American free speech at bay since the US Constitution was written, but now it has invaded our country: and we should be pleased of that. Since Twitter’s birth, it was only a matter of time before war was declared on the platform. The police have been flexing their muscles for some time. Since Paul Chambers went to court in the infamous Twitter Joke Trial in 2010, authorities have increasingly tried to take control of online speech. But Chambers attracted great public support; the authorities had chosen the wrong target.

The real War on Twitter began in mid-2013, when a well-orchestrated moral panic was launched. The clear aim of the panic is to create support for the idea that Twitter is a dangerous medium, and must be controlled. And sadly, many people – conservative and liberal – have swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker. The word “troll” – which originally referred to deliberately provocative posters in online chat forums – was appropriated by the media and redefined to mean “someone who is offensive online”. This now appears in a variety of contexts such as “abusive Twitter troll”, “misogynistic troll”, and so on.

Twitter has a block button, which easily hides future tweets from people one doesn’t want to see. I try not to ever use it (it would be pretty hard to watch morons if I did), but the mechanism works well for those who do. This means that the more delicate souls can forget that there are rude, foul-mouthed, abusive people on Twitter, if they want to.

The panic had clearly been primed and ready to go for some time. It found its perfect moment when a campaign was launched in 2013 to keep women on British banknotes, following the announcement of a new £5 note to be launched in 2016. A journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, tweeted in support of the campaign, and received a number of offensive tweets in response: some of the abuse reportedly featured rape threats. Criado-Perez is an attractive, middle-class, young, blonde woman; the War on Twitter had its perfect victim, and operations commenced.

Another female journalist, who followed events on the day, tells me that Criado-Perez only received a handful of abusive tweets; and yet the event was picked up by the press and massively exaggerated. The tweets, from a handful of morons, became a “torrent”, and a “barrage”. A number of female journalists began an ironically patriarchal campaign, the subtext of which was that women are more delicate than men, and should not have to tolerate the nasty language that men do. Online death threats to men (of which I’ve received, and laughed off, many) are just boys being boys, but rape threats to women are beyond the pale.

Over the past six months, the campaign has been pumped up by the media on a regular basis. Learning from the Criado-Perez experience, the bulk of the coverage is dedicated to the online abuse of attractive young women. Feminists of the Women’s Lib generation might spot the misogynistic message being deployed here, but it appears not to have been widely noticed, with many self-declared feminists attacking “sexist Twitter trolls” rather than the sexist concept that women, unlike men, can’t handle nasty words being thrown in their direction.

Eventually, two young morons – a man and a woman, came to trial for abusing Criado-Perez. Yes, a total of two, despite the “torrent” of abuse reported at the time. The trial’s coverage was riddled with misogyny and class snobbery. Photographs of the overweight, unattractive pair were juxtaposed with the blonde demureness of Criado Perez. “Look at these oiks, abusing such a nice, middle class lady”, the news outlets (almost) screamed.

The hysterical coverage of “Twitter trolls” has set out to demonstrate that the problem of unregulated speech is real, harmful, and getting worse. The prosecution stated that:

“Caroline Criado-Perez has suffered life-changing psychological effects from the abuse which she received on Twitter”

The poor, delicate little thing (did I mention she’s blonde?)

I’m probably being unfair to Criado-Perez here; the Crown Prosecution Service were clearly desperate to get a conviction and extend British law into controlling what people can say in public. The prosecution may well have misrepresented and exaggerated her true feelings in their lust to increase their power over public discourse.

In my 25 or so years of online discussion, I’ve experienced far more abuse than I can remember. It includes threats of harm, anti-Semitic and racist comments, and endless personal attacks. And yet the idea of people being prosecuted for mere speech – however ugly the speech – horrifies me far more than the worst Holocaust joke I’ve seen. One of the preconditions for the Holocaust to take place was to silence Jews and other minorities. Free speech protects the most vulnerable in society. The idea that police should have any role in controlling expression is a horrific one, and can only have horrific consequences; and yet those who should be defending our free speech have fallen at the first hurdle because – shock horror – free speech means people might say nasty words to nice people.

It is tragic that, centuries after the Enlightenment, liberals still need educating in why free speech – even including nasty, bigoted, hateful speech – must be protected. Women, minorities and the poor are never protected by giving increased censorship powers to the state. In 1789, America’s founders recognised this and outlawed censorship in their Constitution. 235 years later, it’s about time Britain followed their example.

2013: Morons of the Year!

Sorry for being fashionably late, but I’ve been suffering somewhat from WTFDISS (“where the fuck do I start?” syndrome). Although I still (perhaps optimistically) believe global moronitude to be in long-term decline, we do appear to be experiencing an upswing at present. One can only hope this is short-lived.

I’ve also decided, for reasons of fairness, that this year’s prize should not be awarded to the American right, although they may well deserve it. Including them in a moron competition is akin to inviting Kenyans to join the Milton Keynes charity half-marathon. It doesn’t seem quite fair.

However, no round-up of moronic outbursts would be complete without America’s Craziest, so let’s start there.

Oklahoma Tornado Madness

Extreme weather in the US always brings out the morons. The increase in extreme weather events couldn’t – of course – be caused by greenhouse gases. What kind of gullible fool would believe what scientists say? So obviously, the explanation for the tornadoes in May that killed dozens of people, including 20 children in a school, lies elsewhere. Take your pick: our old friends at the Westboro Baptist Church said God did it because basketball player Jason Collins revealed he was gay. Another old friend, Pat Robertson, agreed that God did it, but because the people of Oklahoma weren’t praying enough. And conspiracy loon Alex Jones said the government has the capability to create and steer tornadoes, but (modestly) said he wasn’t sure if that’s what had happened in this case.

White-ish Supremacist in North Dakota

The tiny town of Leith, North Dakota, which has one black resident, was shocked when Craig Cobb, a white supremacist, moved there with the stated aim of turning the place into a haven for anti-Semitism and white supremacy. His plans began to unravel when he was DNA-tested for a TV show and discovered he was 14% black, after which his home was attacked by white supremacists. He was then arrested after staging an armed patrol of the town with his remaining supporter.

A New Pro-Life Twist

A Republican congressman from Texas, Michael Burgess, found a new reason to reduce the abortion time limit, claiming that foetuses begin to masturbate from 15 weeks, and so can experience pleasure. Although, since God slew Onan for spilling his seed on the ground, one wonders why Burgess would show mercy to a sinful foetus.

Megyn Kelly and White Santa

Megyn Kelly, Fox News presenter and serial moron, claimed, in a standard piece of Fox race-baiting, that Jesus and Santa were both white, before rapidly backtracking and saying it had been a joke. As ever, Jon Stewart delivered. It was pointed out to me on Twitter that Jesus was Semitic and Santa is based on Saint Nicholas, who was Turkish, so technically Kelly was right; however, since when did Fox News and its moronic, Muslim-bashing presenters accept Semites (Palestinians, for example) and Turks as white people?

Government Shutdown

Having failed to overturn Obamacare by democratic means, the Republicans, led by idiot Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz, decided to act like petulant toddlers and close down the US government, costing the US economy an estimated $24 billion and threatening to unleash global economic havoc if the US had been forced to default on its debts. The tactic was not just moronic for being economic suicide, but because it would clearly backfire on the Republican Party. World leaders and markets watched in fascinated horror as semi-literate Tea Party baboons dragged the economy to the brink of disaster; panic was only avoided because nobody actually believed Cruz and his followers could really be that crazy. The Republicans were forced to back down after 16 days. Scarily, Cruz is seen as something of a rising star in his home state of Texas; watch this space for more fun and games.

NSA and GCHQ

Thanks to the bravery of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency, as well as the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, we discovered what we had long suspected: “our” spies are spying on us. All of us. The extent of the spying was awesome (in a bad way), exceeding the guesswork of all but the most paranoid observers. The NSA, and GCHQ in the UK, are demanding vast amounts of data from email providers, tapping into key Internet connections, and breaking encryption that was previously assumed to be safe. As Greenwald comments, the NSA can literally watch every keystroke we make. Our data – phone calls, texts, emails and more – are being warehoused for future uses – whatever they might be.

North Korea and East Germany had previously been held up as the ultimate surveillance states, but the extent of the spying by the US and UK goes far further; only Orwell, in his book 1984, had accurately predicted what is now happening. While many world leaders reacted with horror, the British government merely tried to reassure us that we were being spied on for our own good. The endless stream of scare stories about paedophiles, immigrants and terrorists, from David Cameron and his ministers, is perhaps spurred by the need to build an even greater level of fear among morons in order to justify this new state terror.

The Labour Party once again proved itself worthless at defending civil liberties. In parliament, the Labour MP Keith Vaz, in almost fascistic terms, questioned the “patriotism” of Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger in choosing to make the information public. And sadly, the average British moron-in-the-street shows little interest in questioning or challenging the state’s right to watch what we are doing.

Israel

Once upon a time, it was accepted that stronger tribes could expand and take land from weaker ones; thankfully, such situations these days are extremely rare, but Israel’s genocidal treatment of the Palestinians and Bedouin stands out as a rare modern-day example of primitive land robbery, as well as unimaginable cruelty. While the world pretends not to notice, Israel has turned Gaza into a hellish prison camp, which is on the verge of collapse, deliberately deprived of clean water and power, and swimming in sewage. The US and EU avert their gaze rather than intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Separately, Israel is rounding up tens of thousands of native Bedouin people from the Negev desert and putting them into government-built towns away from their homeland.

Netanyahu, however, is increasingly being recognised for the dangerous moron he really is, and is becoming marginalised on the world stage – so much so, that he decided not to attend the Mandela funeral, using the flimsy excuse that the trip would be too expensive. Israel has long been resisting the “Apartheid state” label, but it is losing that battle, and attending Mandela’s funeral would have tempted comparisons that Netanyahu is desperate to avoid.

Nelson Mandela

I had long been bracing for morons to revel in the death of Nelson Mandela, and of course they were ready to scream “terrorist” at the top of their voices. But when the moment came, there was nothing the morons could do: Mandela’s legacy as the greatest leader of his era was set in stone. His former enemies went to pay tribute, fake smiles on their post-colonial faces. The African “terrorist” had secured his place in history ranking far above the “great” white Western leaders who had hated him. In dying a hero rather than a terrorist, Mandela cast new light on Ronald Reagan’s legacy of terrorism conducted in the name of “freedom”.

The attendance of America’s black President at the funeral of a great black world leader sent America’s “not at all racist” racists into a frenzy, and a meme quickly spread via right-wing commentators, especially Rush Limbaugh: why did Obama attend Mandela’s funeral but not Thatcher’s? To which the quick answers were: 1) Thatcher wasn’t a head of state and 2) Her much-disputed legacy pales next to that of Mandela.

Welcome Africa!

Speaking of Africa… the arrival of high-speed digital communications on the continent has had two major results: the fast-growing African economy gets a new boost as it connects to the global economy; and a whole new legion of morons joins the global conversation. For moron-watchers, the highlight of the Mandela funeral was the signer who didn’t know sign language, but perhaps should be nominated as mime artist of the year, as well as winning a story-telling award for claiming he had been under the spell of a schizophrenic episode (although he had been repeatedly hired previously for ANC events).

As I blogged in January, President Jammeh of Gambia probably should win the most-moronic-African-leader award in a highly competitive field. His recent achievements are legion, including the enforcement of a four-day working week for schools and public employees as an encouragement to attend mosque on Fridays.

As the year came to a close, Uganda’s parliament passed a law that would jail people for life for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality”. The law was first drafted four years ago but was shelved under threat of the loss of Western aid. As in other parts of Africa, the race card had been heavily played, with the fight against homosexuality being described as a war against immoral Western values. In his inauguration speech after being re-elected, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe took swipes at his two favourite targets: whites and gays.

War on Drugs

For most countries, 2013 was yet another year in one of mankind’s most moronic achievements to date: the so-called war on drugs. However, a few places deserve plaudits for beginning to resist the idiotic tide. Uruguay became the first nation in history to fully legalise cannabis, and the US states of Colorado and Washington followed suit. These examples look to be the start of an unstoppable movement. Those states that decriminalise and tax recreational drugs will quickly reap economic advantages over those that do not.

Morons are naturally outraged by the move towards legalisation – they tend to be allergic to common sense in any form – and were quick to spread a spoof story about a spate of “marijuana overdoses” in Colorado. It is, of course, effectively impossible to overdose on cannabis, but morons and facts are like oil and water, especially when it comes to drugs.

So we enter 2014 with most of the world still pursuing stupid, expensive and dangerous policies against substances which are mostly safe; the world is still around 99% crazy, but a small chink of sanity has appeared.

Woolwich and UK Nationalism

In May, an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, was brutally hacked to death in Woolwich, London. The murder became a terrorist act when the killers asked passers-by to film it and the aftermath on their mobile phones. Terrorism only works if morons are terrorised, and on that measure, this attack was immensely successful, helping to further feed a growing tide of nationalism and racism in the UK. The attack was undoubtedly one of the events that has helped UKIP gain support; it may not make sense that a murder could lead to a rise in anti-EU sentiment, but morons rarely make sense.

One might observe that the attack was tiny – one dead, zero injured; or that it was only the second fatal terrorist attack in the UK in the 11 years since British troops have been stationed in Afghanistan. The attack highlights the lack of a serious “terrorist threat”, rather than the existence of one. But morons have now swallowed the threat’s existence, and it is being used to erode a range of British freedoms.

eu

The Ascent of the UKIP Monkey

UKIP, presenting an “acceptable” (although judging from the appearance of its candidates, deeply inbred) face of nationalism, have drained the pool that the BNP and EDL swam in, and drawn away nationalistic supporters from both the main parties. Their arguments are laughable and based largely on false numbers, deep misunderstandings of economics and scare stories that play to closet racism. This year, the party made great mileage by claiming that there were 600,000 unemployed EU migrants in the UK – a false story run in various tabloids and quickly debunked. The Sun ran a small apology (see right), but the damage was done, and UKIP were in no hurry to admit their lie (the story is still on their site).

It may seem odd to conflate the issues of terrorism and the EU, but that is exactly what the nationalistic right are doing. In the absence of hard facts, a drumbeat goes on which is luring in morons in large numbers: “Terrorism… immigrants… EU… our jobs… housing shortage…” It may be an idiotic message, but it is still a potent one.

The idea that immigration causes economic problems is the reverse of the truth; when you do encounter economically-illiterate UKIP monkeys, it’s worth sharing this lovely video with them.

Will Norman Tebbit Marry His Son?

The gay marriage issue was firmly on the agenda, but the tide is now flowing strongly in the right direction. Both France and the UK legalised same-sex marriage in 2013. In France (which despite its “secular” label is still deeply Catholic and conservative) the move prompted large protests, but not so in Britain. Instead, we were entertained by the ageing Thatcherite loon, Norman Tebbit, who mused about whether he might be able to marry his son and avoid inheritance tax (answer: No) and also asked the important question: “When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?”

The Global War on Sex Workers

While conservatives are being forced to concede on gay rights as well as racial issues, perhaps (as I blogged in August) the new civil rights front-line is being defined by sex workers. Sex worker advocates have long campaigned for the trade to be brought out of the shadows into the mainstream, where female and male sex workers can benefit from the full protection of the law, as experienced by most of the rest of society. Instead, in countries around the world, prostitutes are treated as lesser beings. Moralists of the religious right attack sex commerce as ungodly, while moralists of the left claim they want to “rescue” the workers – without, of course, first checking whether they want to be rescued.

In America, police in various states were found to be using the possession of condoms as evidence of sex work, and so prostitutes have been forced to work without them, and HIV rates have risen. Perhaps this year’s most shocking case of official hatred of sex workers involved a Texan man who shot a prostitute for refusing to sleep with him; and was acquitted of murder.

Sweden has implemented a “progressive” attack on sex work, known as the “Nordic Model”, whereby the client rather than the vendor is criminalised. But the end result is the same: prostitutes are considered to be working underground, and do not receive the full protection of the law, or respect from the authorities; this was demonstrated in July by the murder of Swedish prostitute and sex work campaigner Petite Jasmine by her ex-partner, who had previously been given custody of their children.

Undaunted by the failure of the Nordic Model to protect workers, France set out this year to do the same thing, cheered on by neo-moralists across Europe, notably the once-liberal Guardian. The Rescue Industry has declared a full-frontal assault on the rights and incomes of prostitutes; attacking their right to work while claiming to “save” them. in practise, they’re being “saved” for lower paid work, or for deportation as illegal immigrants.

In Britain too, brothels were raided to “rescue trafficked women”, but as ever, no “trafficking victims” were found; instead the raids were used to deport illegal immigrants and clean up Soho for gentrification.

In Canada however, the Supreme Court struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws on the grounds that they endanger sex workers. It is unlikely that Canada’s insanely right-wing government will accept this situation, however: watch for more laws soon, probably couched in “anti-trafficking” language.

Miley The Slut

“Progressive” moralists were also in full voice this year to bully Miley Cyrus, who had the brass nerve to grow up from a sweet little girl into a young woman unafraid of flaunting her sexuality. She even dared to twerk and to employ black backing dancers! Which obviously makes her racist, right?

This was one of many moments in the year when conservative and liberal commentators became almost indistinguishable from each other in their joint hatred of sluttish behaviour, with the Guardian again excelling in couching conservative attitudes in liberal terms. Expect more attempts in 2014, from left and right, to push female sexuality back into the box from which it was liberated in the 1960s. Burqas for popstars, anyone?

And The Winner Is…

Commentators have asked in recent years whether Britain is sleepwalking into censorship. These days the debate is about whether we are sleepwalking, or running headlong.

big-brotherIn the summer, David Cameron announced an agreement with ISPs to introduce “porn filters”. Those who had watched the rising moral panic over “sexualisation” were in little doubt that the filters were a big step towards full-blown censorship of the British Internet. Sure enough, when the filters were rolled out in December, they blocked – either deliberately or accidentally – vast amounts of content, and almost none of it was pornographic. BT’s list of “adult” categories ranged from dating to drug information to sex education.

The filters are based on the premise that teenagers and children are the same thing, and thus block most “edgy” information that teenagers may want or need to access as they discover the world. The Internet had been a safe place for teens to explore their sexualities and psyches, but no longer. Whether parents have the moral right to block their children’s access to this information is unclear; but the cowardly ISPs, who (with one honourable exception) gave in to Cameron’s demands, have given them the ability anyway.

The initiative has caused concern globally, with exasperated American free speech advocates declaring the birth of the Great Firewall of Britain. As of now, many British people no longer have access from home to millions of websites. World censorship leaders, the Chinese have expressed their admiration for the UK’s plans.

Claire Perry, the MP who campaigned for the filters, had vigorously argued that no overblocking would occur; so it was with deep joy that campaigners discovered Perry’s own site had been blocked – presumably due to her obsession with pornography.

Ironically, the filters are very easy to work around; which means that teens will have no problem still accessing the pornography, sex education, drug information, “obscene and tasteless” and other content they wish to see, while their parents live in ignorant bliss.

So 2013’s joint Moron Award winners, for their attempts to censor the UK Internet, their encouragement of censorship worldwide, and their attempt to turn Britain back into a safe, 1970s-style (Jimmy Savile anyone?) pre-Internet nation are David Cameron, Claire Perry, and the leading UK ISPs – BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk – who agreed to go along with their plans.