Monday, 27 October 2014

On Charlie Elphicke's plan to ban the Trolls.

I write as a pseudanonymous blogger. My nom-de-plume is an old nickname from growing up. It's useful mainly because It means I can keep my political writing and activism separate from my professional life. But if you really, really want to find out who 'Jackart' is, it should take you about 2 clicks. This filtered permeability is deliberate. A Google search will either throw up my professional life, OR the blog, but not usually both.

A am not in any meaningful way, anonymous. But I understand why people might be. The Military 'Service test', company social media policies and so forth usually expressly forbid the expression of political opinion online. The exception seems to be the public sector hard-left who revel in their employers' support for their hard-left activism and desire to 'expose' those who 'have vile views' (ie disagree). Letters to employers can often follow some pretty mild expression of what is  often basically 'Economics 101'.

The real bullies are all too often those defending the status quo from those who think differently, and 'Troll' has come to mean 'anyone disagreeing with a lefty on the internet'. Real Trolls are just people whose hobby is winding up the self-important and humourless. The endless tweets of "your a dick" (the grammatical error is part of the gag) to Richard Dawkins is an example. The aim is to get a rise. And to this end, the perma-outraged Caroline Criado-Perez, the womyn behind the campaign to get a woman womyn on the £10 note, is great value. She will always bite. So she's targeted by Trolls. Some of whom are hilarious, some of whom aren't.

Trolling is not the same as 'flaming'. Flaming is the straight exchange of insults. This too can be cathartic and when indulged in between people who aren't offended, can be enjoyable. A good insult can be poetry. Use of robust Anglo-Saxon shouldn't be illegal.

We're also moving into the territory where giving offence is becoming illegal, encouraging a competitive victimhood race to get your identity/religion/political beliefs  legally protected. This is profoundly undemocratic, with a chilling effect on free expression. If you don't like something, block, ignore and move on (on which more later). Free speech must come with the freedom to offend, or it isn't worth anything, and political debate becomes a circle-jerk around the status quo. To the extent that it already is, partially explains the rise of anti-establishment parties. Offensive comment isn't "trolling", and shouldn't be illegal, however angry you may be about your shibboleth being held up for challenge or ridicule.

Nor is the stalking, harassment and abuse meted out to some people "trolling". I'd quite happily wind up Miss Criado-Perez, because I think she's an insufferable, po-faced, hypocritical misandrist who's more or less wrong on everything. But just as you're allowed to ask "name me something a woman has invented" to a feminist in a pub in order to piss her off, you're not allowed to say "I'm going to rape you, you fucking bitch" in a pub, on Twitter or indeed anywhere else. There's a line. That line is threats, harassment and incitement. The line exists in law, and no further law is needed. You can say what you like up to that line. But if the target of your abuse leaves the pub (blocks you on Twitter), and you follow them home (set up multiple sock-puppet accounts), you're moving from legal free speech, into harassment. Prolonged harassment is already illegal, online or in meatspace.

Which brings me to this excrescence from the Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke.

Hate-tweeting trolls make people’s lives hell. They’ve got out of hand on social media and we need to crack down on it
Great, enforce the laws that already exist.
we cannot just be tough on hate-tweeting, we must be tough on the causes of hate-tweeting, too. We should target the anonymity hate-tweeters use to harass people online. At the moment it’s just too easy to set up a bogus account and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain.
Does he mean "people" or "politicians"? So much good is done by people who tweet, blog and write anonymously, maybe because their views are controversial, or because "procedures" forbid those who know, from telling the truth. Remember night jack? I would fisk the whole thing, but as it doesn't address the issue that sprang instantly to mind with his first sentence, there's no point. Elphicke is talking out of his arse.

Anonymity is a vital component of free speech, because it allows uncomfortable truths be told to those, like Elphicke, who exercise power. And if you really need to find who someone making actionable threats is, it's easy enough to find out. Even the careful Old Holborn was 'exposed' eventually, after trolling the whole of Liverpool. But as he'd said nothing illegal, he's able to wear his title of 'Britain's vilest troll' with pride.

Peter Nunn, on the other had crossed the line. Threatening to rape someone, the MP, Stella Creasy on twitter is not 'Trolling' and is (rightly) already illegal. He was gaoled for 18 weeks under current legislation. Perhaps Ms Creasy is right. Perhaps we do need to take such threats more seriously. But it's clear from this case we don't need another law to do so.

The tone of debate on twitter is not the same as that in the house of commons. It's more like how a rowdy pub would be were it to hold a political debate. People are engaged through the medium of twitter. It's potentially a superb means for politicians to reach out to the people and bridge the divide. Some, like Michael Fabricant or indeed Stella Creasy get it. Others like Elphicke clearly don't. But trying to turn Twitter into the Oxford Union isn't going to work. All it will do is encourage another online network, which isn't regulated by the nanny state, to be set up where people can flame each other at will. Most of us enjoy the rough and tumble of debate, and sometimes minds are changed.

Perhaps someone should point out that calling Charlie Elphicke a stupid, ignorant know-nothing with a face like a baby's arse and brains consisting of what comes out of one, isn't "trolling". It's fair comment. I'm a card-carrying Tory, so nor it this a partisan attack. Indeed I'm ashamed to share a party with someone so wildly illiberal and ignorant of what he speaks. How DARE he write something so ill-informed and stupid?

This fear of "trolling" is nothing more than a particularly egregious moral panic. A good insult can be poetry. There is no right to live unoffended. We don't want to ban anonymous comment because we're a democracy. We have already banned abuse, threats and incitement because we're civilised. 



1 comment:

Bill said...

I've been blogging for 12+ yrs always under my own name. I simply don't accept the validity of anonymous blogging whether it's the likes of the formerly obscure Guido Fawkes Fleet Street Fox or you Jackart - as you observe accurately it's easy in most cases to uncover the true identity of anonymous bloggers pretty quickly if not immediately. At least those mentioned have useful contributions to make but pure trolldom very often does not - I don't want such people banned although I simply mostly ignore them for the idiots they are.

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