Is Twitter the most evil thing on the Net? Arguably, but the accusation really lies on those who use it. The latest Online Harms Bill may do more evil still. If that is counterintuitive, let us look at some reality.
The effect of Twitter is devastating. It has been touted as a democratisation of the expression of opinion, which sounds like a good thing. It has in fact been destructive. It provides a platform for people who only know how to shout abuse, and so it normalises filth, insult, rage and threats of real-world violence. It has infantilised journalism now that lazy journalists just read tweets for their sources as if they were real. It cannot be used for debate and is destructive of debate. In the political sphere, it serves mainly as a platform for hate campaigns against individuals or political opponents. It could destroy democracy by preventing discourse, spreading conspiracy theories and libels; and by showing us how real people think so that we react ‘Why in the name of all sanity do we allow these people the vote?’
However, these platforms are just reflecting the people who use them. The abuse of social media is not in the same class as the cheeky satires of former days. It brings up excrescences from the pit of the soul, unrestrained, uncultured, unthought. I do not intend to sully this page by quoting from the sewer of things which are said. On social media, the pseudonymous Everyman may rain his foulest thoughts upon anyone in the public eye. If pub conversation is foul-mouthed and inane, that is still restrained by the presence of friends or neighbours: the open internet has no such restraint.
The public people are all there: the politicians at the top of the tree, the Hollywood A-list, the headlining journalists, the footballers you scream at through the television screen, and all within a keypress for anything you have ever wanted to say to them. They have formal power and influence but here, here on Twitter or wherever, you have power to hit them and hurt them, and that exercise of power feels glorious.
Those politicians and footballers are people though. They might appear on the screen like the fictional characters in a bizarre soap opera, but they are real flesh and blood, with families and feelings.
Women in politics suffer indescribable abuse on social media, as any of them will attest, and ethnic minority women in politics have the worst of the lot. They have to be on social media because it is expected, but to find every exposure met with the crudest insults, slanders, threats to rape and kill – it is more than the average soul could bear, and even when she switches the machine off, her mind goes back, worrying about what is being said behind her back, unseen and unchallenged.
(There are men who instinctively feel that women are beneath them and should not be in politics. I pity any women in their circle.)
The legal responsibility of social media platforms is an arguable one. On the face of it, they are just blind carriers, providing space not content, and no more responsible for the abuse that fills it than the Royal Mail is responsible for the content of letters. However, the letters here are open, and published with the platform’s logo at the top, and the platform does have control if it chooses to exercise it. It is not like a newspaper though, with the sub scouring every paragraph printed for libels: the social media platform is (like so much of modern tech) an unexpected landscape with no precedent to follow.
Lawmakers in much of the world have specifically decreed that mere web hosts are passive carriers not responsible for their content, which is practical. Microblogging sites though when they have rules and administrators are teetering on the edge of the law’s indulgence.
Into this has been brought the ‘Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill’, which is a Trojan horse, and a stalking horse. This is a private member’s bill in the Lords and stands little chance of becoming law, but it has found vocal support amongst many who should know better. The danger is that this Bill will be a pattern for future actual legislation, as it follows the Government’s own egregious Online Harms White Paper. Both seek to appoint a regulator with open-ended power to control all speech on the web.
The promoters of the new Bill urge that it would be a weapon against abuse, but it does not address it. What it would do is require Ofcom to recommend the appointment of an official censor for the entire internet. The initial duty, according to the Bill would be to make “recommendations for a duty on online platform service operators” to prevent “harm”, and then to require the government to bring a Bill to implement all those recommendations.
This harms is not restrictively worded, but includes:
“(d) discrimination against a person or persons because of a protected characteristic; ….
(g) threats which impede or prejudice the integrity and probity of the electoral process; and
(h) any other harms that OFCOM deem appropriate.”
The Bill has been introduced by a Liberal Democrat peer, taking the illiberal, undemocratic stance his party does, and its intent must be understood in that context. These threats to “the integrity and probity of the electoral process” echo the LibDem obsession with imaginary Russian interference with the Brexit referendum (long since disproven, but still pushed as if fact and presumably the outrage at foreign agents is not applied to open European interference with the referendum). The idea of ‘Discrimination’ is breathtaking: the existing law affects those who provide public services, forbidding them from withholding those services on the grounds of race, religion, sex etc, but to apply that to all private human discourse is astounding. Even that is not enough though: “any other harms that OFCOM deem appropriate” wraps up anything.
Someone will be hired as “Chief Censor of the Internet”. Think about what sort of character would seek out such power. Then fear.
Is Twitter evil? You can decide that for yourself. It can always be switched off though. Censorship cannot. It is the real evil.
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