Freedom of speech, debate and critical dialogue is vital in a healthy and democratic society; however social media must not be a realm beyond the law of the land.
Last year, Twitter was used as a platform to spread images of child abuse and pornography, and was used for countless incidents of hate speech, defamation, racism, harassment, abuse and bullying. Ordinarily, these crimes (note, they are crimes) would be investigated and prosecuted. As it currently stands, UK users of Twitter and other social media platforms can avoid identification and prosecution under the law of England and Wales, as inadequate identification occurs at the point of registration and disclosure of information to the police does not happen without a court order, scuppering potential investigations.
After the CPS lifted the threshold on ‘gross offence’ for social networking criminal cases implementing High Threshold and Public Interest principles; significant anecdotal evidence suggests the police have largely seen this as an indication to stop pursuing social network cases, including those of hate crime, harassment and abuse ordinarily prohibited under the law, falling back on a freedom of speech argument. This is a poor, irresponsible and dangerous response to the growing phenomena of online criminality. The door has now been opened to increasing hate speech, harassment and bullying at a time when the shadow of the far right is spreading across Europe, we are in the midst of an economic depression and certain types of hate crimes are at record levels. This cannot be a good indication for the future and historians quite rightly should be keen to ring the division bell. We need to stop and think.
The seeming inability for people to regulate themselves, behave with common decency and courtesy, and the decision of the CPS to grant UK citizens 1st Amendment rights, has lead me to launch an e-petition calling for government to take direct action by working with social media companies to tighten up registration without fettering free speech. No doubt it will be called an ‘anti-trolling’ e-petition however it is about far more than just online harassment and abuse, it is about unlawful conduct more generally and ensuring people can be held to account for speech which is and must continue to be, subject to the law of England and Wales.
As a public speaker, broadcaster and lecturer on Islamophobia, I’m quite used to tackling controversial topics. After my BBC1 debate with the leader of the English Defence League on The Big Questions, the floodgates opened to unprecedented levels tirades of abuse, hate speech and threats of physical violence. Featured with Edward Stourton on Radio 4’s Sunday program, recorded by TellMAMA (an organisation monitoring anti-Muslim abuse) and the worst of the offenders having been reported to my local constabulary - the tide was stemmed but it not stopped. The diligence of Hampshire Constabulary working under the old CPS rules lead to a number of arrests and indeed, convictions – a chilling effect to hate speech but not free speech. Mr Starmer, take note.
In this lawless, wild west of a social networking landscape, it’s a vital public service that individuals pursue claims for the sake of society as a whole and to send a clear message to others. We have a moral duty beyond ourselves. The concern now has to be that the bar lifted by the CPS is a significantly retrograde step making it more difficult to police unlawful behaviour and providing less protection.
In August 2012, Helen Skelton closed her Twitter account after suffering bullying and harassment from trolls saying “Turns out I don't have a very thick skin after all so I am closing my twitter account”; Suzanne Moore has suffered phenomenal levels of abuse following her ill-judged comments about the trans community which has in turn caused a furore over whether Julie Burchill should be sacked over her defence of the journalist; Gary Lineker has recently quit Twitter for “personal reasons” having previously made comment about how sickened he was by the treatment of his son on the social networking site. Other high profile sufferers on Twitter include Ashton Kutcher, comedian Matt Lucas and singer Sinead O’Connor. Richard Bacon’s BBC Three documentary focussed on his mission to “out” one of his trolls and he has spoken at length with great honesty and dignity about the anxiety and suffering of constant trolling and harassment and a guest on his Radio 5 program last year, Kirtsie Allsop, spoke openly about the abuse she has faced. There will be countless others, public figures and private, suffering in silence.
Social networks provide a fantastic opportunity for the general public to engage directly with public figures and political and social activists. However, the fact that some see this as carte blanche to backbite, bully, harass and abuse is a damning indictment of our society, outweighed only by our appalling failure to respond and police lines defined by the law. Harassing and abusive speech is uncivilised. People suffer. It affects private lives, families, workplaces. We are not emotional punch bags and door mats for the most feckless, ignorant and debase amongst us to work out their issues against.
The law is being broken on a massive scale. Hate crimes are going unpunished and we now have the dystopia that if you choose not to accept this unlawful harassment, argued to be free speech, fair comment, scrutiny, or an occupational hazard, you are somehow over-sensitive or too easily offended. My meeting last week with the Director of Public Policy for Twitter and TellMAMA, told me that there are significant challenges to when it comes to the online realm. The CPS and police are retreating into their shells, free speech has become polluted by the vitriol of hate and unlawful behaviour is becoming the norm. My advice, take a stand.