Free speech, Twitter and ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

Free speech is hard, especially on the internet. You should have the ability to say almost anything without fear of legal repercussion. Other than words that actively harm people, like shouting fire in a crowded room, or death threats, you should be able to say any stupid stuff you like. The beauty of free speech is that if you say something objectionable or offensive, people can argue with you and say you were out of line.

Just to pick an example from the last few days, there was a controversy on twitter when a former MP called a man a ‘Scumbag’ and a ‘loathsome tit’ for having a different opinion to her. What makes it worse was he was waiting on an operation for his disabled son.

Many people argued back to her, telling her she was being insensitive and insulting. I don’t want to get too much into the specifics of the argument, but I think it’s an important example of the limits of free speech. You have the legal right to say anything but in interacting with other people, you should still observe common decency. Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should. Our words have impacts on other human beings and we should recognise that. On the internet, our words are still affecting real people and can hurt and hound people. Twitter has become especially vehement and nasty in the past few years, with multiple racist and sexist attacks on those who are seen to be different. Unless you are in the privileged position of being a white man with the ‘right’ (whatever that means) political views, you can be attacked simply for being who you are. Just look at what one of the stars of Ghostbusters had to deal with.

Twitter is especially bad for these attacks because the limited character count removes and nuance and context from larger arguments. The semi-anonymising nature of the service, as well as the fact it is only text, strips people of empathy and decency. We really need a new code of conduct for the internet that is not so vile and hateful.

I have been thinking about these issues for a while, but they were clarified by reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. It’s a funny and self-effacing book, but ultimately it carries a very serious message. We have the right to say what we want, sure, but it can have a horrible impact on others. Take one of the main examples in the book, that of Justine Sacco. She made a slightly ill advised tweet before getting on a flight to Africa. Whilst she was on the plane, an internet hate mob was whipped into a frenzy. When she landed, she was fired. Ronson follows her throughout the book and she ultimately gets another job, but it takes time.

What shocked me most about this and other stories throughout the book is the callousness. For the majority of the people who are sending insulting and rude messages, the Justine Sacco incident was a brief afternoon’s diversion. Those who called for her to be sacked more than likely forgot about it within a week as the next internet scandal rolled on. But for her, it had long reaching consequences and a devastating impact.

Also worrying is the lack of context these tweets inspire. No one stops to look at the wider conversation these tweets are part of, or whether they may be a joke, or if they are a private remark in a public sphere. People just immediately condemn any action they see as wrong, or any opinion they disagree with. Perhaps Twitter is ill suited to nuance and subtly, but internet warriors fail to do even the basic bit of research. Original messages get twisted, jokes between friends get blown up against all proportion.

Here’s the thing though, all these people are exercising their right to free speech but it is harmful to the overall conversation. By shouting down those who are not white, or those who are not men, we silence their voices and remove a diversity of the conversation. We also limit the topics we can cover without inciting controversy. Conversations become more limited as people are afraid to speak out, for fear of being shamed. It’s a dangerous path to go down. Ronson argues the same in his book:

We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.

Jon Ronson’s book makes it clear that what happens on the internet is not just digital amusement. It is real life. Just as you wouldn’t shout at someone on the street, you shouldn’t verbally abuse people on the internet. Be kind and compassionate of others. Before shaming someone or shouting at them, maybe consider that they are real people with real feelings. Yes, even Piers Morgan. It’s fine to respectfully disagree with people. For people in power, it is right and just to hold them to account. But we should be respectful of others and never abusive. we should seek wider context before condemning and even then we should only focus on arguments, not ad hominem attacks.

If you are being abusive and promoting hate speech against anyone, you should not have the right for a platform. People can and should kick you off their sites, because you’re making it toxic for everyone else. Your rights aren’t being infringed. You can still say these awful things, they just don’t have to be published.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an important book that humans on the internet should read. Everyone needs to read and process it, because at the moment the internet is poisonous. It doesn’t have to be. Be respectful and kind.

Let me know what you think