Is Twitter evil?

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.

See also

Books

The Wrong Side of History

The idea of inevitable progress is worse than folly: it is a positive impediment to thought, leading to decrepitude.

Finding patterns in things, Isaiah Berlin observed, is a human trait (“To understand is to perceive patterns”) but he know it was all fantasy, like seeing the shapes of animals in the clouds. History, viewed from a distance shows few examples of constant motion in any direction: short of the social changes brought about by the discovery of metal and new materials, the invention of wheels and writing, it is hard to place any ‘inevitable’ thread in the human story, but for one, which Thomas Hobbes observed:

it is evident that dominion, government, and laws, are far more ancient than history or any other writing.

Things may change in any society in a way we perceive, from tyranny to freedom, from oligarchy to democracy, but all these concepts have come and flourished and decayed and fallen many times in recorded history. There is no inevitability. Berlin again said:

Historians of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern.

There is no pattern though, and there is no set idea of progress, whatever the Whig historians thought or Marx wrote. As to inevitability, consider the Augustine Age of the Roman Empire; universal peace, prosperity, law and cultural continuum – and compare it with the situation in Europe just 500 years later. Europe did not match the achievements of Rome until the Renaissance, if then. The Renaissance was not to last either: it posited a stable relationship of crown, mitre and scholarship, but it just took a monk nailing his theses to a church door showing the falsehoods on which that culture was built, and it came crashing down.

If you who believe that the process of modernity is proof of rightness, consider these:

In 1642 the Civil War began in England. It is seen today as a modernising struggle for democracy, but it was the opposite. Parliament was old, mediaeval and progress in that age, demonstrably, was to enlightened despotism as demonstrated by Europe’s most advanced monarch: Louis XIII of France. King Charles gathered young and energetic advisers, while those who opposed him were the older generation. John Pym was 58 in 1642 (four years older than Thomas Hobbes); John Hampden and Cromwell spritely at 47 and 43 respectively. The coming men would dispense with the mediaeval hang-over that was parliament. The Civil War was reactionary, a rebellion launched by the passing generation quickly before it was too late, before the young pups could take over. Democracy was against the tide of history.

In 1688, James II & VII tried again. He had lived in exile in France, seeing the spectacular achievements of his cousin, Louis XIV, who excelled his father (and bankrupted his nation, but that was unseen). The old ways got in the way and had to go; the reformation was a past enthusiasm to be replaced by the modern counter-reformation. King James removed the old guard from their positions and appointing new, younger men steeped in the ideas of the Sun King. Parliament was dismissed and royal authority over state and church established. It was the way all the world was going. Democracy was reactionary and old-fashioned; it survived only by a rebellion of the old guard.

The Whig Interpretation of History which followed the Glorious Revolution tried to recast the reactionary rebellions by imagining a general progression towards freedom and democracy. It served well: it gave a rousing national story to encourage us to ever-greater achievements and it ensured that future developments in Britain and its Empire followed that idea, but it was based on wishfulness, not fact.

In the 1850s, slavery in the southern states of America was perfected as a system, as the local establishment thought, such that the Manifest Destiny of these states was to expand over a ‘Golden Circle’ embracing Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Led by the Democratic Party, the bold new vision declared that “We will expand, as our growth and civilization shall demand – over Mexico – over the isles of the sea – over the far-off Southern tropics – until we shall establish a great Confederation of Republics – the greatest, freest and most useful the world has ever seen.” To bring it to reality, private armies invaded Mexico and conquered Nicaragua (until an attempt to conquer the rest of Central America caused a reverse). In Congress, a proposal was debated to establish slavery as the law in any new territory acquired by the United States to the south, in anticipation of this expansion. It was the future. Only the Civil War and the merciful abolition of slavery ended this vision of progress.

In 1912 the first of the International Conferences of Eugenics met. This was a vigorous scientific discipline, promising an improvement of all mankind. Chairs in Eugenics were founded at universities, the imagined benefits became a staple of futurist literature, because this was the certain future. Those who opposed eugenics were ignorant, superstitious reactionaries, so the world was assured by its ‘enlightened’ minds. The opening of the Nazi death camps wiped this grotesque future from our future.

In the 1930s, democracy and ideas of individuality seemed to be winding to their end. Socialism was the future, the nations were assured, and the only struggle was between factions of socialism: Communism or Fascism. Pliant journalists shown the new Soviet Union came back to say “I have been over into the future, and it works.”, even as Ukrainian peasants starved in their millions. Anyone opposing socialism was behind the times, ignorant of modern thinking, harking back to an anarchic system incompatible with modern life. A modern, mechanised age required a modern, ordered, mechanised system of rule, of life and of death. Both fascism and communism promised order and effective action. We saw how that went.

In each case, the widespread acceptance of inevitability sapped resistance. It narrowed the scope of the imagination. Those who opposed socialist takeovers, as Franco did, just imposed their own versions; because that was modern.

Belief in today’s enthusiasm as a universal, timeless ideal drives out constructive thought. From this will come only stagnation and collapse.

See also

Books

Hate speech: the Denning Solution

The Law Commission have discredited themselves into irrelevance. The Police have lost the respect they need to bear authority. Power has passed to the unaccountable. Lord Denning had a solution ahead of his time to define what is truly hate-speech worthy of the law’s attention.

The tussle between freedom to speak and the maintenance of order is an old one, maybe as old as speech itself. The first Stone Age tribal chieftain who clubbed underling for speaking out of turn began an age-long train of action.

Not so long ago, freedom of speech was limited even in Britain, but there was liberty enough to grumble against it, and juries were not so willing to convict their neighbours for speaking against what the government or polite opinion insisted upon. The main crime of expression was one against the written word only: ‘seditious libel’, and on this charge many pamphleteers was put before a jury for insulting the King’s ministers and sowing dissention against the lawful authorities.

In the latter half of the twentieth century Lord Denning expressed his opinion of the offence:

The offence of seditious libel is now obsolescent. It used to be defined as words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects. But this definition was found to be too wide. It would restrict too much the full and free discussion of public affairs…So it has fallen into disuse for nearly 150 years. The only case in this century was R. v. Caunt…when a local paper published an article stirring up hatred against Jews. The jury found the editor Not Guilty.”

The Caunt case he quotes concerned a shocking editorial in a local newspaper: in 1947, the editor of the Morecambe and Heysham Visitor published an article virulently attacking all Jews and suggesting that violence against them would be understandable; and this just two years after the death camps had been opened. It was written as a response to the Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, making no distinction between the rebels in the Levant and Jewish people generally – its key paragraph would get any journalist sacked and disgraced from any respectable newspaper today, or promoted in the Guardian. It may have been a cause of anti-Jewish riots that followed in Liverpool. Nevertheless, the jury acquitted the editor, because free speech was more precious to them.

The acquittal burst the idea that racial hatred could be restrained by the law of seditious libel, and in time the first Race Relations Act was introduced. It made explicit as a crime to stir up racial hatred. That is not a problem for anyone: today’s issue is in imagined interpretations of the much later Equality Act, unwarranted extensions of the McPherson recommendations, and a hedge built about the law by those with a deeper agenda.

Lord Denning’s summary of the law of his time was perhaps a personal one, as ‘seditious libel’ was a common law offence not defined in statute, but is much quoted abroad, where sedition is still a live topic.

Denning’s summary gives us a what may be though the ideal standard not just for speech against races but against any portion of the population, whether one of the narrow categories of the Equality Act or any other group which has attracted the ire of an ill-disposed speaker, to persecute any minority or majority:

words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects

That should be simple enough, and it should be enough: stirring up violence. That said, the coda, in the idea of “ill-will or hostility” is itself very broad, which might be what made the old law a dead-letter in the hands of a jury. Political rhetoric today (on one side at least) is dominated by accusing opponents as a class of being fiends in human form, which is improper and to be condemned socially but finding the policeman’s boot at the doorstep of every Labour or SNP activist its likely to bring the law into disrepute.

The law steps in where it is necessary to protect society each individual in the society it governs, and guard the social bonds which keep order in that society. In a totalitarian society those bonds may be drawn tight and inflexible, but a free society needs elasticity, and that means mutual tolerance of originality and plain rudeness. It only steps over the line when actual violence is threatened. That is where a law of sedition has a place. In the Denning formulation then, the essence of what should be forbidden is “words intended to stir up violence”: the promotion of feelings of hostility is the method whereby violence is stirred or made more likely, not an additional offence: “promoting hostility such as to stir up violence”, not stirring up violence or promoting hostility.

See also

Books

What did You do in the Culture War?

It has to come to this: action or defeat. Act, and wisely. First realise that this is not a two-sided fight: the new-left and alt-right are both the enemy to the values of good sense and freedom; the ideals of the English-speaking world.

What to though: what can be done by someone with no influence nor any real desire to be shunned at social gatherings, when they are finally allowed?

For one thing, ask yourself why you think you would be shunned for acting as you must or expressing opinions which are actually those of the great majority of people. What actual power do the new-left have over you or polite society?  They have none but the power your fear gives them. The first enemies to defeat are your own lack of confidence and your fear of shadows.

The left-wing, the woke mob, whatever you call the general tendency, do not have a monopoly of spoken opinion. Even if they have the numbers, they cannot dominate because modern media does not work like that. Looking at America, it has in this generation few journalists worthy of the name, but a variety of online media which has broken the dull conformity. The mainstream channels can pump out lazy platitudes and woke nonsense all they like, but Ben Shapiro on his own can have just as much reach alone in a studio. That is how opinion balances in the open market: one young man can beat ten thousand hardened journalists.

Then again, Ben Shapiro is a genius. Were he not there, we would be in trouble. He has the reach with others do not have, and he can do more. Recently his company even launched a film studio, specifically to break the dominance of the woke-bound big players.

Jordan Peterson is another, calling out nonsense on both sides: who would imagine that a university lecture series on clinical psychology would be getting million+ hits on YouTube? It works because he speaks plainly and truthfully. A lecture series full of mendacious left-wing platitudes would fall flat.

A hundred years ago there were Marxists feeling frustrated that whatever they did, the Establishment institutions were in other hands and they would make no progress in breaking and remaking society until they could achieve a Long March through the Institutions. Well, now they have achieved that and are in command of the heights. Now it needs a Long March of common sense to drive them off.

Most of us are not capable of doing such great works as those like Ben Shapiro, but there must be things to do – the left-wing do not stop just because they are incapable.

First then, I will look at where those with power get that power, and how they pretend to power they do not have. There will be articles to follow. That is my target. What is yours?

See also