Well, this all seems like a bit of a no-brainer really doesn’t it? If a Twitter user sends a rape “joke” to a woman, that’s deliberately offensive and can be incredibly hurtful. Such users should be banned and if possible prosecuted.
Similarly, a user who embarks on an individual campaign of harrassment is caught both by provisions in criminal law and by Twitter’s rules.
However things get a bit more tricky once you start dealing just with individual offensive messages. The criminal law has had many attempts at regulating such speech, but the negative impact on freedom of speech always outweighs any potential benefits.
Of course, rape jokes are not on, and sending this kind of vile misogynist content to someone can be deeply hurtful to the recipient. Many (if not most) women will have personal experience of real sexual assault, and this kind of language can trigger memories of such events. This can be immensely damaging and can impact on women’s ability to communicate freely online.
The difficulty comes in defining what is unacceptably offensive. To the victims of terrorist atrocities, messages which make jokes about terrorism can be very upsetting. So what about people who joke about blowing up an airport, or make jokes about soldier’s t-shirts do we sanction that kind of content?
What about the parents of soldiers killed on active service, don’t they deserve our respect? Shouldn’t we be supporting our armed forces, not insulting them?
“How about if we just ban tweets which joke about sexual assault?” I hear you say. Well… we could do that, but don’t we run the risk of stifling all discussion of sexual assault online if we do so?
See the problem is, no matter how hurtful or damaging an individual act of speech may be to another individual, we should be very wary of seeking to regulate offensive speech. We can deal with threats and harassment, but in trying to stop people being offensive to one another we will create a collateral damage effect on everybody’s right to speak freely. The price is simply too high.
In the words of Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge:
“freedom of speech and expression. Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by this legislation.”
The price of regulating offensive speech is, in my view, too high. The best thing we can hope for is to provide women (and indeed men) with the right tools to protect themselves from online abuse should it occur.
Many of the women subjected to attacks online have been victims of “twitter mobs”, where multiple individual users all compete with one another to see who can be most offensive to the recipient. In some cases, users even carelessly stray into posting criminal content. This is what Caroline Criado-Perez has been subjected in the past few days. Maybe if these users had been stopped before they even posted, they would never have ended up committing a criminal offence.
This is why I support Matt Flaherty’s proposal to include a “Panic Mode” to protect users from twittermob campaigns of abuse, which I believe will both protect women, and help to discourage such Twitter mobs, making Twitter a nicer place to be for everybody, and preventing trolls from carelessly subjecting other users to criminal harassment.
By the way: for a balancing view, you should probably also read my sister’s take on this.