Diane Abbott (image: notey.com)
I am starting to wonder whether people, public debate, and therefore politics, would benefit from sticking to transparent, traceable, on-the-record communication only. It seems clear from innumerable documented incidents that the corporate entities of Twitter and Facebook are, all too often, passive in responding to online abuse. Not all of this abuse is political, but the patronage of politicians and other public figures lends social media an air of legitimacy that aids those who circulate abuse. If almost every politician – from local council candidate to POTUS – were to abandon Twitter and Facebook, they would have to resort to more formal methods like face-to-face communication, letter-writing and (whisper it) paper publications. It would also send a signal to private sufferers of online abuse that none of this is acceptable.
Let the social media platforms come back to us once they have clamped down on criminally threatening and abusive behaviour – not before.
While no one likes censorship by police or government, let’s start by acknowledging that the internet is already censored. The secret services try to access to almost all of our online communications anyway. Added to this are a number of examples of censorship of political activities on Facebook, for example when activists sometimes find that content they have posted on Twitter or Facebook – or their entire accounts – have been deleted without obvious reason. Facebook and Twitter may deserve some credit for their role in various popular protests and movements across the world, but their track record is mixed.
On Radio Scotland yesterday morning, three different Scottish politicians – the SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP, Labour’s Anas Sarwar MSP and the Green John Finnie – described experiencing persistent online abuse. Racial abuse, sexually explicit abuse, and much besides. Finnie acknowledged that, as a white man, he has received somewhat less online abuse; but he recognised the problem. This morning’s debate followed from Diane Abbott MP’s recent remarks that her team try to prevent her being unaccompanied in public, which stems in turn from the murder of Jo Cox MP in the weeks before the Brexit referendum.
To their credit, these politicians seem to acknowledge that it is not just public figures who suffer online abuse; it is a depressingly everyday occurrence. Whether it is the threat of violence – sexual or otherwise – and whether motivated by race, sex, or just plain disagreement, everyone on social media seems to be considered fair game for this extreme variant of freedom of speech. For all their algorithms, sponsored and “tailored” content, Facebook and Twitter don’t seem to respond to everyday online bullying consistently. They pick off a few of the worst offenders – the videos of horrific violence – but they let everyday online harassment pass. Whether you are a divisive political figure, a celebrity, an ex-partner being stalked, or just someone with an opinion, the prevailing philosophy of social media is “you have to be able to take it”. Of course you can block someone, but you can’t realistically block everyone without being accused of “avoiding” them, which is always a bad look for a politician.
Online abuse is often, literally, criminal. It can be far worse, word for word, than the kind of speech that would get you thrown out of a pub or shut down on the Jeremy Kyle Show. Facebook and Twitter are, in my opinion, morally if not legally responsible for circulating intimidation around its intended recipients.
The fact that online abuse is happening to politicians is depressing on a number of levels. Politicians, the media, the judiciary, trade unions, pressure groups – and others – have to protect freedom of speech. They have to stand up for the weak, the unpopular and the very popular alike. Their job is, among other things, to set the tone of debate, to speak out and, of course, to listen to all sides of the debate. Without wholesome debate, respect for everyone’s right to speak, and the rule of law, every other freedom starts to look qualified and vulnerable. I am not arguing against freedom of speech at all: I’m arguing in favour of it. But the variant of freedom of speech that predominates on social media is not the most desirable one. It is often hateful, with the overt purpose of intimidation.
It would be a brave politician today who completely boycotted social media. I’ve been around politicians enough to realise that the prevailing wisdom for anyone seeking public office is:
- You have to engage with voters.
- You have to accept that what you’re saying won’t be popular with everyone.
- If all the other politicians are using Twitter, you have to use it too.
I can see that social media is useful for staying in touch with friends and circulating information among people you know. But I fear that politics is suffering as a result of widespread online intimidation. Politics requires “safe spaces”: forums that moderate inappropriate content and report threats of bodily harm to law enforcement. I know that this will be unpopular with many on the left who have a strong and justified suspicion of law enforcement agencies, but, really, who wins when we use media where extreme personal abuse is ignored, tolerated, even tacitly encouraged when we happen to agree with the politics of the person doing it?
I’ll keep using Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with friends. I can’t really imagine not using social media for that. But, if I was ever to enter elected politics, I’d set these accounts to private and, frankly, I would refuse to read any correspondence that didn’t have the sender’s name and address written on it. Once elected, I’d campaign against bullying in all its forms.
PS – no, I’m not standing.