Twitter: Where free speech and censorship can be synonyms

Reblogged from the Political Studies Association.

In 2010, Yoani Sánchez famously said “Freedom is the possibility of standing on a street corner and shouting, ‘There is no freedom here!'” (Libertad). In recent weeks, however, the platform has not been the street corner, but instead social networks like Twitter, and the freedom in question has been whether we can or should be allowed to say whatever we like online, however abusive, without consequence.

The affair that ignited this discussion began in late July and early August 2013, when anonymous Twitter users began sending rape threats to journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, then death threats to MP Stella Creasy, and finally bomb threats to more female journalists and even academic Mary Beard. The result was a media storm over online behaviours such as trolling, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking, which led to equally intense debates about the issues of censorship, freedom of speech, and whether current legislation dealing with online abuse is entirely inadequate or far too draconian.

These precise problems have dogged site owners and moderators since the advent of social communication online: how can sites like Twitter promote free speech without equally facilitating online abuse? And should abuse spring up, how can this be managed without straying into censorship? For a start, the notion of what is offensive, threatening, or abusive is a sensitive and subjective judgement. Take, for instance, two jokes posted on Twitter: Sally Bercow‘s *innocent face* that ultimately cost her a small fortune when Lord McAlpine successfully sued her for defamation, and Paul Chambers‘ joke about blowing up an airport that resulted in a criminal conviction which took two High Court appeals to overturn.

An added complication is the classic defence-attack strategy sometimes used by those who post online abuse: namely the defence that they are exercising their freedom of speech, and the attack that efforts to block or remove their abuse is censorship. The internet itself – particularly those parts with an Anglo-American cultural background – has historically tended towards liberalism (in its sense of equality and freedom), and each side of this free speech/censorship argument seems to attack that philosophy on its most vulnerable side. In reality, however, when used in relation to online abuse, both are problematic for several reasons.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, those who employ so-called “free speech” to intimidate, threaten, and ultimately silence others are actually perpetuating the very thing they are supposedly fighting against – the selective censoring of voices by a self-appointed minority. In other words, both free speech and censorship are, in such cases, being twisted into the same ideological monster, where, “it’s free speech when I attack you, but censorship when you attack me”.

Secondly, the censorship attack sometimes seems to implicitly assume that a target is obliged to listen. In these cases, attempts to delete, block, or ban the content are then decried as censorship, and as attempts to silence the attacker. This is a rather strange perspective since offline, we would promptly hang up on, walk away from, or even call the police to deal with someone who began to hurl abuse at us. It would also be an unusual person who considered themselves as infringing their attacker’s rights by doing so!

Thirdly, individuals who use the free speech/censorship argument to defend online abuse fundamentally misunderstand both notions in their larger context. In reality, it appears that no country which enshrines some form of free speech in law also protects absolute freedom of speech. For instance, North America is famed for its First Amendment provision, yet there are numerous exceptions where speech is not protected. These instances include false statements of fact, obscenity and incitement, threats, and classified information, to name but a few.

Likewise, in the UK, freedom of expression is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (see also §12 of the Human Rights Act 1998).  However, even this Article stresses that this freedom carries with it both duties and responsibilities, and that it may be restricted in the interests of national security, the prevention of crime, the protection of others’ rights, and more besides. Accordingly, there are several UK laws that curtail this freedom of expression from being absolute, including the Malicious Communications Act 1988, §5 of thePublic Order Act 1986, the Communications Act 2003, and the newly-updated Defamation Act 2013. In short, even countries that are typically thought of as beacons of free speech do impose limits, and these limits are generally designed with protection and defence in mind.

In a perfect world, then, the ideal online forum provides an environment in which one person’s decision to exercise free speech does not effectively censor another person. Yet this is an area in which the social sciences needs to do much more to understand how abuse, threatening behaviour, hate-speech and so forth is carried out online, by whom, why, and what can or should be done to better deal with it. These are areas that research groups like the ESRC-funded Corpus Approaches to Social Science centre are tackling by working with, and disseminating research findings to Members of Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, and the police. However, there is far more to be done than one centre alone can manage if we are not only to understand, but also to protect the ever-evolving phenomenon of online interaction.

Free speech entails neither the right to silence others, nor the obligation to be listened to, since this would be far closer to a definition of censorship. To use either the defence of “free speech” or the attack of “censorship” to carry out online abuse is to fundamentally misunderstand how each works, potentially at the expense of a police visit, or even a criminal record. On that note, it is perhaps useful to finish with a few blunt, and yet wise words from Jim Hine: “Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.”