As a window on the world, the internet has become an infinite source of information. As a platform for expression, it allows just about anybody to air an opinion on just about any topic and get it out there in the public domain. Many people fiercely defend the internet as the ultimate in freedom of expression alongside the right of individuals to express themselves without censor or curtailment. But what happens when an opinion is expressed that cause’s implicit harm to another individual or group of people, and when does expressing such an opinion turn into a punishable offense?
Sitting behind a keyboard is in many ways, so remote and divorced from everyday living, that even the most mild-mannered of people can be transformed into vindictive and opinionated bullies. The wimp who has sand kicked in his face on the beach can be anything that he wants to be in the virtual world. This has given rise to the phenomenon of the internet “troll”. Defined by the Urban Dictionary as “someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the primary intent of provoking other users into an emotional response”, there are now many examples where these people have been traced and punished for their activities.
The Mail Online reports that the number of people convicted of sending offensive obscene or threatening electronic messages rose to over 1200 in 2011 from just 498 in 2007, and that Police are “grappling with a troll epidemic”. These figures are undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg, as many high-profile cases of celebrities being targeted come to the fore, whilst an avalanche of other incidents go unreported. Highlighting the uncertainty over what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes bullying, Keir Stammer the Director of Public Prosecutions called for an informed debate on freedom of speech in this, the age of social media.
Although some of the bigger online platforms like Facebook and YouTube have introduced measures designed to bring attention to and combat threatening or harassing behaviour, there are others that have demonstrated a reluctance to tackle the issue.
Reddit is an online platform where users vote on news items to decide which are brought to the front page. One of their sub-forums that has generated millions of page views for the site, is a forum known as Creepshot, where users post anonymous sexualised pictures focused on innocent and unknowing women. Recently unmasked as the man behind this forum, a mild-mannered 49 year old grandfather (Michael Brutsch) was also invited by Reddit to be a content moderator. In the aftermath of this, Reddit demonstrated a reluctance to withdraw the content as they did not wish to infringe on the right to freedom of expression of their users. In the wake of public outcry, they have now withdrawn the content. Some people argue that this merely forces the content to go underground and has little to do with making it unavailable.
By far the most worrying aspect of this trend towards cyberbullying is the fact that it has been suggested that one in four children of school age have been targeted in this way, and that at least 350,000 children in the UK have suffered ongoing and persistent occurrences. More than half of the known occurrences have happened on Facebook while MSN messaging and normal texting also provide convenient platforms. This has lead to absence from school, anxiety, depression, self-harming and even suicide in extreme cases.
So it seems that there is some merit to calls for the right to freedom of speech on the internet to be regulated and in some cases curtailed. Freedom of speech becomes bullying when it hurts or damages another human being. The problem with this is that it is subjective and almost impossible to define in terms of legislation. Perhaps with the emphasis on punishment rather than censorship, there may be some way to accommodate both sides of the debate. But the issue is not just about willingness to act it is also about resources and as we all know, the resources we have are finely stretched as it is. Which way will it go? Watch this space!