The first amendment in the United States is a wonderful thing. It means you can say whatever you like about anything... But with the increasing popularity of Facebook comment section fights, and chatroom brawls, I'm seeing more and more often that people seem to forget that freedom of speech goes both ways.
By now you'll have probably heard of Breanna Mitchell, the teenage girl who posted a selfie smiling at Auschwitz concentration camp. Although she posted the photo some time ago (June 20th), it has only recently gone viral - clocking up more than 3300 retweets and a barrage of abuse over the past few days.
My family, it appears, are a 'bunch of ugly, sad losers'. My wife is so 'desperate' to leave me that she will '**** the next man she has a drink with'. My beautiful children are, variously, 'pathetic... spoilt... probably adopted' because I am 'unable to get it up... a waste of space... a miserable, untalented tosser'. Worst of all though, my kitchen is 'hideous'. So this is what being trolled feels like... The other week I wrote what I felt was a thought-provoking, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, confessional about my enforced 12-month sabbatical as a stay-at-home dad trying to set up a new business after sudden redundancy.
I'm not sure about you but I'm still figuring things out as I go along - and I don't think there is any shame in that. We might not always like what we hear but we've got to respect it all the same. The power of debate is rooted in our differences and imperfections. The tide of subsequent social and political change relies as much on our ears as our mouths.
It was a revelation this month to discover that calling for tougher curbs on smoking, made me a Nazi. Strike that, it was a surprise when my (admittedly provocative) Huffington Post article received a slew of 'she's a Nazi' comments, when my twitter account was inundated with trolls, when I received hate E-mail...
To all those people saying, "This isn't a free speech case, they were simply jailed for making death threats!", I say: "Not so fast..." Firstly, because they were not found guilty of committing the old offence of "threatening to kill or murder any Person"; and secondly, because the act that they were found guilty under does, very clearly, have implications for free speech
The critical thing which needs to be done is that parents, guardians, teachers and friends need to take more responsibility to protect individuals who are young (and vulnerable) to ensure that they do not receive any abuse. These people can act as the 'Watchdogs', but they must understand how the internet works...
If you receive a malicious phone call, would you demand that the phone company be banned? If you receive a malicious or threatening letter, would you demand that the postal service be shut down? The problem in cases like this isn't always the medium which is used, but the horrid and twisted people who carry out these disgusting acts.
The panic about these keyboard-tapping folk devils, this handful of very sad men who are said to pose an existential threat to the safety and self-esteem of the whole of womankind, conforms precisely to Cohen's definition of a moral panic. With one difference: the moral panic over trolls has even less substance.
Online abuse is a complex issue with no easy answer, but we can all take steps to rid the world of trolls. First, stop using the word, and get real. Be compassionate, caring, and kind towards each other. Let's all live by the The Golden Rule of Twitter - tweet others as you would like to be tweeted yourself.