Twitter: Free Speech vs. Censorship

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Twitter

Over the last week there have been several stories about trolling, threats of rape and even bombing on Twitter mostly if not exclusively aimed at women. Why is this happening now and should or could we ban and censor these people.

Police are investigating bomb threats made on social networking site Twitter against several female journalists. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, Independent columnist Grace Dent and Time magazine’s Catherine Mayer all said they had been threatened. It follows rape threats made on Twitter against MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. – BBC Website

I am a huge supporter of free speech and the ability to express your opinions on any given subject – but what these men are doing is to persecute women by threatening violence through explosives or sexually motivated attacks. Strangely I took a decision myself to remove any instances of Ask.fm from my Facebook account as I saw this very problem on my timeline regarding one of my former pupils and it’s not something I want to see to hear about. Those on her ask page were making jokes about sexual attacks on her, and even though she appeared to be laughing it off it’s not something I want to see and I’m sure she feels the same. It appears that the threat of rape is now a socially (networked) acceptable way of expressing yourself and that is not on. Rape is not something that should ever be joked about either in person or on the internet – it’s far too serious a crime to be flippant with.

While I also have a sense of humour about many things, this is not one of them. My sense of humour is very dark, but at no point could the “it was only a joke” excuse be used to try to back out of threatening someone with rape. The sad thing is that the overwhelming majority of the people who type such things are not likely to ever actually carry the threat and are probably decent enough people most of the time. They see the Smartphone, Laptop or PC as a safe place to throw these comments out without fear of reprisals – but as we’ve seen since the London Riots two years ago the law is catching up with the technology and prosecutions are happening more frequently. These “brave” keyboard warriors are nothing more than sad little boys, teenagers and young men looking to troll and wind up everyone connected with the person. There is the problem however, that it only takes one person to be serious and the threat to be real for that argument to fall down.

There is a fine line here between someone saying something stupid which can be blocked, deleted and ignored as opposed to those who continually bombard individuals with threats and abuse. Banning them is not enough as we have seen they have started up a new account within half an hour of the previous one having been closed. Perhaps there is an argument to remove the anonymity on sites like twitter and you should have to register fully with them so you can be properly monitored. The argument against that is that information can always be misused and misrepresented; so where do we draw the line?

If someone makes a specific threat against another individual or tries to incite such behaviour in others then there is a case for the police to step in – if it happened in the street with someone coming up to you constantly threatening you then you would deal with it through the authorities so why not online? My worry is that there are many idiots out there, perhaps after a few drinks or other substances, who make one comment that can end careers and see them prosecuted. The first essential step is an abuse button on Twitter and Facebook to remove such offending comments and alert the hosts to the issue, then there needs to be a grown up and not knee-jerk reaction by the government and the police as to how to approach these cases through the legal system. Currently Judges are using guidelines that are not made to measure for the age.

The danger is that those in power will not tackle this correctly and will end up as another “porn filter” exercise where you and I are going to be punished and our freedoms curtailed just to keep a few idiots from doing damage – but is it a price worth paying to stop these women from facing a torrent of lewd and unacceptable abuse? Or should we all grow thicker skin and accept this as part of the price of freedom online and learn to block and delete such inane comments?

JD

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