THE BLOG

Twitter's Terms Put Feelings Over Free Speech - And It's Part of a Worrying Trend

05/01/2016 22:59 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Twitter trolling. One of the most debated issues of the past year, the problem was brought huge publicity by the infamous case of online threats of rape/death/ general vileness directed towards feminist activist and journalist Caroline Criado Perez for having the audacity to campaign for a woman to appear on the £10 note. And it seems the social site is seeking to clamp down on this gross abuse.

I recently came across a policy from the network for paid content and posts regarding 'Hate Content, Sensitive Topics, and Violence.' And, at a glance, it looks pretty sound.

Prohibited are: "Hate speech or advocacy against an individual, organization or protected group based on race, ethnicity, national origin, color, religion, disability, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status or other protected status. Violence or threats of violence against people or animals."

Given the alarming rate at which misogynistic/ racist/ homo and transphobic bile spills from the twisted fingers and out of the accounts of some people, this is a brilliant policy. Any brand/ person who wants to promote such stuff cannot. Good.

But there's another clause - one that I'm not quite so thrilled about. Also deemed unacceptable is: "Inflammatory content which is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction or cause harm."

Hmmmm. A "strong negative reaction."

How far does this extend? I might not be best pleased if someone informs that they find my political opinions to be the stuff of utter fuckwittery, or if PETA tells me that not being vegan is abhorrent, but, to bring everyone's favourite French Enlightenment philosopher into the mix, as Voltaire believed: "I may not like what you say, but I will defend your right to say it."

Getting in a pickle because other people don't agree with us - and, shock horror - perhaps think our ideas are bollocks, is something the super sensitive cohort we call 'Millennial' have adopted as our specialist subject.

'American Psycho' author Bret Easton Ellis' recent Vanity Fairfeature, the provocatively titled 'Generation Wuss,' stirred a serious sense of recognition in this nineties baby.

In it, his summarises his frustrations with the post-1980 born lot. The list includes:

"...their over-sensitivity, their insistence that they are right despite the overwhelming proof that suggests they are not, their lack of placing things within context, the overreacting, the passive-aggressive positivity, and, of course, all of this exacerbated by the meds they've been fed since childhood by over-protective "helicopter" parents mapping their every move."

Reading, that, I can't help but bitterly resign myself to a series of nods.

Take the recent example of blatant harassment from some members of Goldsmith Islamic Society to Iranian human rights activist, Maryam Namazie, who campaigns against theocratic law such as Sharia. When delivering a talk on radical Islam ('Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of Isis', to be specific) she has been shown, on film, being heckled by a number of students. Speaking to the The Telegraph on the incident, she said: "They shut my projector, shouted over me, threw themselves on the floor. They created a climate of fear and intimidation. I spoke as loud as I could."

This simply does not work. We need to be able to hear views that we hate, find hurtful or are even appalled by. If we begin to be personally attacked and intimidated, or threatened with physical and sexual violence, then that turns into a crime, and should be dealt with, harshly, by the police and law. But thoughts and ideas are not nasty promises of attack, neither verbal of corporeal. And demanding that they should be silenced is not only counter to our fantastic tradition of free speech - it runs contrary to the status of universities as homes of curiosity, intellect and, yes, debate.

So whether it's a bizarre chap on Twitter merrily proclaiming that women belong in the kitchen, a prominent academic who wants to ban faith schools, or just a random person with questionable views on trans people, so long as they're not making threats or behaving violently, natch, I really hope we can try to shut them down with our words, reason and logic. Not by calling for their banishment from every which platform - virtual or not.

Amendment: An earlier published version of this blog stated that the Twitter policy on 'Hate Content, Sensitive Topics, and Violence,' was new, when, in fact, it was pre-existing. This has been corrected.