Freedom of Speech – Freedom from Consequences

online abuse

Image credit: Garth Jones

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David French, a conservative writer for the National Review, was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. He describes in the interview the fallout from his critical coverage of the online Alt-Right movement, particularly its connections to the Donald Trump campaign. He mentioned repeated tweets that his wife was cheating on him while he was stationed overseas; doctored photos of their black adopted daughter working in a field as a slave, or about to be killed by Donald Trump in a gas chamber. He talked about how he came to be afraid to turn on his Twitter timeline, because he knew he was about to read a deluge of abuse.

What is most shocking to me is how none of what I have described above comes as a shock.

French’s experience, the constant abusive ‘pinging’ of his online account; the targeting of his wife and family; the anti-semitic content of the abuse and, most of all, the sense of impotence in the face of being online and having no protection legally from anonymous and persistent harassment – all of that is familiar.

Every movement has its counter-movement. The internet’s idealistic pursuit of free speech and learning was always ripe for exploitation by parties who dominate, bully and attack. Early adopters who championed online culture as an anarchistic paradigm shift for society were brought down to earth with a sharp bump first by the monetizing of the internet – it turns out free information is not free. Then the legal grey area of online abuse became rich soil for hate speech and harassment.

This in turn yielded a response by online progressives. Tools such as The Block Bot – its tagline ‘Helping you ignore the eminently ignorable!’ – and the commonly circulated advice to ‘block the trolls’, allowed users of platforms like Twitter to shut down recurring attempts at online harassment.

So imagine my surprise when I learned this was considered ‘censorship’ by some. Apparently free speech trumps personal safety and mental health.

In Victoria, the 2006 Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act holds that

  1. Every person has the right to hold an opinion without interference.
  2. Every person has the right to freedom of expression which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, whether within or outside Victoria and whether-

   (a)  orally; or

   (b)  in writing; or

   (c)  in print; or

   (d)  by way of art; or

   (e)  in another medium chosen by him or her.

I have understood freedom of speech to mean freedom from prosecution by authorities for holding political views, or personal beliefs,  that are at odds with that regime. I was also under the impression this was a concept more codified by American law. Online platforms like Twitter are based out of the States. The more hard-nosed libertarianism of Silicon Valley is bleeding through to how men and women around the world communicate using these tools.

This is all important to understand, because in the name of free speech, abuse or harassment is reclassified as ‘discussion’. A free exchange of opinions and views. Another tactic is for someone with a large following to identify an opponent and then target them with a seemingly innocuous message  – say something like, ‘look at what this fool is saying’ – effectively dogwhistling for a mass of individual users to go on the attack.

If you look to protect yourself by blocking these messages, you are accused of censoring free speech.

In Charlie Brooker’s science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, a character says ‘there’s no cure for the internet’. This medium for information is now indelibly embedded in our lives.

So much of our interactions online are made via the exchange of personal data. We are living online in a way that we never did with print, where there was always a distance between the medium and the message. That brings with it risk for us as users, and with that risk a need for protection.

The act of bullying depends on making others vulnerable and left feeling exposed. We as citizens of the online world have every right to defend ourselves, to not provide an outlet or platform in order to faciliate personal abuse in the name of free expression.

That is not censorship. That is standing up for oneself in the face of the mob.

On this week’s Friday Forum: what is the best way to respond to online bullying and abuse? 


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