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.

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

    1. Because they regard it as beneath them. Because patriarchy. Because authoritarian feminists like Criado-Perez actually want to control what you can think or say.

  1. The next move, the most dangerous in my view, will be against web anonymity. Criado-Perez demands not only to block Twitter -accounts-, but also the actual people behind them from viewing what she chooses to put on a public platform; her “full block” function proposal.

    This, obviously, would require Twitter, and by extension all online accounts, to be tagged to actual people. And this is a Govt’s wet dream; all online access logged, recorded, permitted, or not. Douglas Carswell MP got it in the neck recently whilst testing the water to see if he could get away with tagging Twitter accounts to, in his case, the electoral roll; “to improve the level of civility in debate”.

  2. It is out of control here. It started with the Labour party being controlled by the self-serving middle class man-hater “wimmin” and usual corrupt pompous (often gay) “men” politically correct, as they had been for previous 10-20 years, (I have always considered myself a socialist until these creatures took over Labour) and they started their attack on anyone who “offended THEM and any other uninvited immigrant. At first it was blacks, and most of us thought they SHOULD be protected, then it was over the top “protection” of gay/lesbian “rights” which quickly became gays and lesbians using it to BULLY and even SUE non-gays (and THAT get worse daily) and lastly muslim extremists to be saubsidised in attacking anyone who DARES speak out against extremists. This law is NOT used against muslim extremists threatening others on Twitter it seems, the Tory party have removed funding for the muslim group suing people who speak out – but recently a DJ was arrested and charged with criticising the muslim responsible for attacking christians.But it is ALL down to the corrupt politically correct heterophobic “wimmin” who have their snouts in the “public funds” trough and can’t be removed and control elected officials through their fear of being labelled “homophobic” “racist” “islamophobic” etc
    There is a new party has come from nowhere to now threaten the 3 main parties UKIP they were originally an anti-europe party, but to many of we bullied British heterosexual working christian WHITES (and many black people) they are the ONLY one who are showing backbone against these parasites

  3. A very sane and well put piece highlighting what should be the freeness of “free” speech. Criado-Perez assisted the Government in reducing free speech thanks to her actions and we are all poorer for it. Governments will always hide behind such people to do their dirty work if they have any sense. I especially liked your highlighting of the fact that, as usual, it is the poor, nice, educated middle class women who have been offended and who need protecting. Every day there are a thousand thousand nobodies who receive, and laugh off, things much worse than Criado-Perez received. Contrary to authoritarian re-definitions of Free Speech, that concept absolutely does include my right to insult you or call you names. Yes, even if you are a nice, polite person doing what you think is a good deed. This does not make the speech pretty or acceptable in moral terms. But it should NEVER make it illegal.

    1. Ditto! I have a lot of time for Mary Beard. Most famously, she handled what was, by any standard, rape on a train with a maturity that the likes of Laurie Penny can only dream of. The only thing I can criticise her on is a rather ‘jolly hockeysticks’ approach to online debate, when it becomes heated. When people believe they are well within ‘the pale’, it’s irksome to be treated with a patronising ‘Come on, guys!’, and have everything they say that isn’t prostrate apologies dismissed as yet more provocative hate speech (not by Beard, but the Grace Dents and Caitlin Morans of the internet).

      Tolerance is, or should be, a two-way street, and if I can brush off what I see as ill-considered ad homs on a computer screen, my sex shouldn’t be the determining factor, but my confidence that there are laws for what what the rational majority must be able to see as genuinely disturbing abuse. The real worry would be that those laws were being undermined through increasing application to trivial spats. Thankfully, boorish Twitterers claiming that the ‘police have been informed’, and that they have ‘screen shots’ have for the most part been either lying or given short thrift, but it’s getting scary out there for those of us who do want to talk…

  4. …following the announcement of a new £5 note to be launched in 2016. A journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, ,,,

    Two qualms here: firstly, I think it was the tenner – not the fiver – which was in dispute; secondly, Caroline Criado-Perez is not a journalist.

  5. Maybe Twitter should use something on the following lines (the original is an album sticker used by Frank Zappa in response to the PMRC’s attempt to get warning stickers on rock albums):

    “WARNING! This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. The language and concepts contained herein are guaranteed not to cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and pointed stick conducts his business. This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ). If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.”

    This is nearly 30 years old, but relatively easy to adapt for the current day, I think. It also shows how little things change over the years.

  6. If it’s not too late to reply to this one: nice speech, but you can come down off your high horse. There’s little reason to conclude from this story that freedom of speech on Twitter is under threat. (Not that much speech of value takes place on Twitter anyway, but that’s besides the point…)

    Freedom of speech is a principle worth defending, but it’s well established, even in the US, that it doesn’t extend to threats and personal harassment. In the Criado-Perez case, the ‘trolls’ were convicted under a law which *is* arguably overbroad, criminalising any electronic message which potentially offends someone. But the specific behaviour they were convicted for – harassment and threats – has been uncontroversially illegal since long before the Internet was created. Surely you would agree that freedom of speech doesn’t extend to serious harassment of someone; the question of what exactly amounts to ‘serious harassment’ is debatable, but at least in this case the judgement seems pretty reasonable.

    In other words: in principle, yes, the law is wrong and should be changed; but the way it is actually used in practice doesn’t give much reason to think freedom of online speech is under threat.

    As a further point, it’s worth noting that the argument over online abuse goes much further than just over what should be illegal or should be prosecuted. Putting the law aside, it’s arguable that Twitter could and should do more to protect its users from harassment. Yes, blocking accounts is easy and reporting abuse is easier than it used to be, but it’s also incredibly easy for anyone whose account is blocked to just create a new one and go on sending abusive messages. Other websites block users who repeatedly misuse them; Twitter, as far as I know, doesn’t, which is one of the things that makes it such an awful site for discussions.

    Having said all that, I am puzzled by the behaviour of those who are repeatedly subject to abuse and harassment on Twitter, and even complain about it at length, yet refuse to leave it for a website with more sensible policies. That does seem like a particularly strange kind of masochism.

  7. It seems the feminist formula goes something like this:

    1. Say something daft/contentious/deliberately inflammatory.
    2. Receive a vociferous backlash.
    3. Highlight the one or two responses that were OTT. ‘Misogynist abuse/rape threats’ (if you don’t actually get abused online just say that you were anyway as one one ever asks to see the rape threat).
    4. Attempt to win the argument by saying ‘misogynist trolls’ are ‘denying women a voice’.

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