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.