Over the last year or so, social media sites have been attacked for allowing users to post abuse about other people onto their sites. These include examples of cyber-bullying on ask.fm or tweets on twitter calling for other users to be raped. The ask.fm posts have been implicated in a number of suicides while in one notable case, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the UK Parliament, was found guilty of libel for a tweet she posted implying somebody else was a paedophile.
Abuse via social media seems new. In fact this sort of abuse is old. The difference is not the abuse itself, but the level of publicity it receives. In the middle of the 19th century an anonymous individual sent letters to various people in the rural English town of Tetbury threatening to burn their property. Agatha Christie‘s 1942/43 detective novel “The Moving Finger” tells a story of letters sent to people in the quiet town of Lymstock that resulted in the recipients committing suicide. Not so different from the ask.fm cyber-bulling (except that as a Mrs Marple story, things were not so simple and in fact the letters were used as a cover for murder).
Hate letters – often called poison pen letters – go along with anonymous or silent phone calls as one way warped minds try and subvert the minds of opponents or people they dislike. (“The Moving Finger” includes the following: “The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows….“)
Hate letters are the ancestors of today’s abusive tweets and social media comments. There is, however, a difference. Whereas hate mail isn’t public, abusive tweets threatening rape or calling the victim an “ugly cow” are. This has a larger impact as the hatred is seen by many more people and so is much more distressing.
Social media platforms must take such abuse seriously. It can, and does, lead to suicides – especially if the victims already have low self-esteem. It can escalate and lead to false rumours, as happened with Lord McAlpine – libelled by Sally Bercow. Even worse, it could lead to action against the victim.
This is not a case of freedom of speech being blocked. It’s a case of free speech that is liable to cause harm to others being punished. Anybody who tries to justify abuse using arguments that they support freedom of speech is confusing “freedom of speech” with “free speech”. Freedom of Speech is the right to communicate opinions and ideas – and censoring these is one of the first signs of a restrictive society that can, and does, lead to totalitarianism. It is not, however, a right to “free speech” where you can call for the rape of women, or abuse others through words or images. Freedom of Speech also implies responsibilities that justify that freedom.
There are people who would happily ban or restrict social media and even much of the Internet completely. In the latter case, this includes David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, who has called on search engines to create blocks for searches for abusive pornography or be forced to do so by law. Such calls will increase, unless the relevant sites (social media, search engines, etc.) show that they accept the responsibilities of their public position, and actively look at ways of fighting, blocking or reporting abuse themselves.