Online bullies and trolls

When radio was new in the 1930s, it played a big part in the rise of Fascist dictators and the descent into war. Radio was then the ideal tool for propaganda. In 1933 the Nazis took control over radio and began airing pro-Nazi propaganda. In just one month this fully undid the effect of anti-Nazi radio of the previous four years. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister for propaganda, wrote: “It would not have been possible for us to take over without the radio.”

Following World War II, television became the dominant medium. But today, although television remains important, the internet has created an extraordinary set of positive and empowering media networks. It has also allowed those on the fringe to link up with other like-minded extremists.

The freedoms granted us by the internet have been abused by vicious trolls, as well as authoritarian governments. There was an uplifting moment in the Arab Spring of 2011 when it seemed as though Twitter was liberating the Middle East from dictatorship. Now, the Egyptian government regularly jails journalists.

We need to find a way to tame some bloggers, to fence in Facebook, to insist on neutrality on the internet and to revive moderation

As both the President of Malta and the Archbishop have deplored, social media is polarising Maltese discourse more painfully than at any other time. It amplifies the personal and the extreme. It raises the temperature and gives wing to lies. Preaching to the converted dominates. Nuance and constructive argument vanish.

Communication technologies are deciding the political temperature. After decades in which they generally helped moderate discourse in western democracies, they are now inflaming it. Opinions are boiled down to a single Twitter shout.

Polarised hatred seems to be fracturing the political landscape wherever you look. Trump versus Hillary. Climate “alarmists” versus “deniers”. Sunni versus Shia. Daesh versus the West. All are glaring at each other across chasms of cyber-space spewing verbal hatred.

Malta is not immune. Virtual vitriol is corrupting public life. Nor is polarised politics a stranger to Malta. Right or Left. Labour or Nationalist. Binary disputes in Malta have lasted for as long as we have had any institutions we could call democratic.

Racists and misogynists, and Nationalist and Labour “useful idiots” endorse and compound each other’s views. These affect how people behave towards one another. There are growing levels of pernicious bullying and abuse in teenage relationships. There is a similar process of normalisation going on with the increasingly abusive tone through which politics is conducted.

You have only to read some of the blogs in Malta, of which the most read are two on both sides of the political divide by Daphne Caruana Galizia and Glenn Bedingfield. They are the most notorious, and the most malign. Each is the mirror image of the other. Vicious ad hominem attacks. Blatant embellishment of the facts and absurd hyperbole are their currency.

Sadly, blogs, Twitter and Facebook often inflame bitter feuds and lead to a dialogue of the deaf. A report from a Pew Research Centre project in the US found that “polarised crowds [on social media] are not arguing. They are ignoring one another”. The personal nature of Facebook, or even some of the blogs, means that emotional responses – not reason – are on steroids.

Donald Trump first gained fame on television. But it is through social media that he has repeatedly used shock and awe to keep his name in the public eye. He has discovered how to ride an inflamed mob of Rednecks against the political patricians in his quest for power.

We need to find a way to tame some bloggers, to fence in Facebook, to insist on neutrality on the internet and to revive moderation. It must be pursued before the mutual shouting and recrimination gets worse. But we have to do this while respecting free speech and without handing government the power to propagate propaganda and censorship.

The Crown Prosecution Service in the UK has issued guidance to help prosecutors identify and prosecute hate crime on social media. Hate crime encompasses offences against disabled people, racial, religious and homophobic crimes. Ignorance is not a defence and perceived anonymity on social media is not an escape. Those who commit such acts, or encourage others to do the same, will be prosecuted. Is this something for the Attorney General to consider introducing here?

Nevertheless, prosecutors are urged to exercise considerable caution before bringing charges under the UK’s Malicious Communications Act. The internet post must be more than offensive, shocking or disturbing. More than satirical, iconoclastic or rude. It has to be more than an expression of unpopular or politically incorrect opinion, banter or humour, even if distasteful.

In fairness to them, much of what the two infamous bloggers I referred to earlier write falls into these categories and would not therefore be prosecuted.

But the fact is that vitriol often spills from cyberspace into real life. Could hatred fomented on social media lead to actual violence? Online verbal threats can morph into violence, bullying and intimidation in the real world. We saw this with the death of Jo Cox, a British member of Parliament, during the Brexit campaign.

During the Scottish referendum in 2014 Twitter bullying by the “Cybernats”, as the army of Scottish Nationalists became known, quickly spilled over into physical harassment. In Britain, a rise in antisemitism, xenophobia and Islamophobia on social media has been matched by a parallel increase in physical attacks.

There will always be unacceptable opinions. The answer is not prosecution or arrest, but argument – powerful, point-by-point, public rebuttal. Because, like it or not, nobody is obliged to agree with you or me. The freedom of nasty, ill-informed, bigoted people is the liberty for us all.

It is vital to our democracy that independent, high-quality evidence informs public debate. We need to be able to create the conditions in which we agree how we disagree. Science, politics and social cooperation in all forms are hampered if we cannot express ourselves freely. The importance of mutual respect and tolerance are paramount.

We need to develop ‘robust civility’ and the ability to ‘respect the believer but not the belief’. It may sound trite to say it, but we must seize every chance for the spread of knowledge. We also need a fundamental change to the Maltese DNA by growing thicker skins and lightening up by developing a sense of humour.

It may sound obvious, but we need not only more free speech, but better free speech. Many have forgotten the importance of free speech. Across Europe over the past 30 years offensiveness has been turned into a crime. Most European countries have introduced hate-speech laws to control and punish the expression of certain beliefs.

But if freedom of expression is to mean anything, we must defend the right to shock. Freedom of speech does not mean a thing if we don’t also defend it for those, like the two infamous political bloggers, who offend, rile and outrage. Everyone must have free speech, otherwise it’s not free speech at all. It is privileged speech.

Other factors being equal, freedom of speech should be paramount. The case was put most succinctly by George Orwell who defined liberty as “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. Free speech means being prepared to have your beliefs ridiculed and your sensibilities offended.


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