It’s no secret that online spaces have become rife with abuse and abusive behaviour. Politicians and commentators who frankly have better things to do have to endure the spectre of racist, misogynistic and transphobic abuse through email and social media on a daily basis. The move online hasn’t just made it easier to order a pizza, it’s also lowered the barrier to entry for other things, like mobilizing hate mobs. Wanton threats of violence, “doxxing” and organized campaigns of harassment are now a daily fact of life for people in public life.
Although the problem didn’t start with social media, there isn’t much doubt that social media has made the problem worse. Smartphones are now a part of our daily lives, and it’s become too easy for abusers and bullies to fire off vituperative and snarky tweets which appear in feeds in an instant. The particular class of abuse that you tend to get exposed to is a choose-your-own adventure story based on which minority you happen to belong to. Whether it’s violent and sexualised imagery for the women, choice racist epithets for ethnic minorities, or homo- and transphobic abuse for the LGBT community there’s always someone out there thoroughly committed to making sure you’re having a terrible day.
The problem of online abuse is, frankly, as old as the hills. It’s tempting to think that there was once some halcyon age of online discourse where people just talked about Dungeons and Dragons and their local football team, but in fact, racist, sexist and white supremacist content has been around almost as long as the web itself. Finally, though, with 40% of adults complaining of online abuse, and 73% saying they’ve witnessed it, the media are starting to take notice. Local police forces have started to note that an increased amount of time is being taken up with incidents of online abuse (though the times I’ve reported it have often fallen on deaf ears), and even the ever-maligned social media platforms themselves are starting to take notice. It’s also become something of a cause celebre for politicians too, in case you hadn’t noticed.
How we go about handling the problem of online abuse requires a certain amount of careful thought. Tempting though it may be, it’s not simply a case of building an ever more elaborate system of filters and barriers — a filter for anonymous accounts here, a phone number verification system there. Any sufficiently determined harasser and abuser is able to get around these systems, and the results are often all the more terrifying when they do. Abusers are also adept at hiding in the weeds of online debate, often deliberately conflating their abuse with legitimate political criticism as a way of disguising it. When the person on the receiving end of the abuse calls it out, they are often accused of overreacting by drive-by rubberneckers.
The most insidious tactic of all, however, is deployed by politicians and commentators who should frankly know better. It’s become all too common for politicians and commentators, when faced with robust criticism, to start to lump this legitimate criticism in with online abuse. This can take a few forms but usually starts with an appeal for “calm” in political debate, and a lament at charged language being used.
Now I condemn and abhor online abuse, but silencing tactics such as these are not much better. Our aim should not be to sanitize online debate. There needs to be a place robust criticism of politically motivated and ideological attacks on groups that cannot defend themselves. We don’t need less speech, we need more speech and better speech. Engels used the phrase “social murder” in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, dating from 1845.
Granted, Engels was writing in an era before the word “corporate manslaughter” came into common parlance, but by quoting it, McDonnell is categorically not being abusive. And unlike a stray or slightly misworded tweet, what happened at Grenfell needs holding to account. Four separate government ministers were warned that Grenfell and tower blocks like it were a risk, and that advice was ignored. The official advice that Grenfell residents stay put undoubtedly cost Grenfell residents their lives.
Implying that McDonnell’s comments somehow amount to “abuse”, as Sky’s reporter Beth Rigby did yesterday, is to do the comments a gross disservice. This is about much more than idle semantics. Firstly, categorizing legitimate criticism as abuse obviously has the effect of blurring the line between abuse and criticism, making it easier for those who are engaged in the worst kinds of online abuse to claim they are merely offering criticism. This, all too often, allows abusers to get off scot-free.
Secondly, it provides establishment figures with a vehicle to claim that inconvenient criticism of them counts as abuse. Sometimes criticism is both warranted and justified, and at times needs to use robust language to make its point. Conflating online abuse and criticism, needless to say, does not serve our democracy well.
Social media, of all places, is full of easy soundbites and quick solutions, but let’s not suggest for one second that the solution to online abuse is to sanitise online discussion entirely. Politicians and commentators should be able to use everything the English language allows, from satire to hyperbole, to yes, charged language to hold each other to account. Let us waste not one syllable if we are using language in the service of democracy and accountability. Suggesting that we somehow need less speech only plays into the hands of those that would seek to divide us.
The price of that freedom is eternal vigilance: that a pretense of political opposition is not being used to cloak abusive behaviour online.