Monday, 8 February 2016

Beware The Trolls

Free speech is something I have discussed before, mainly in relation to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. My feelings on the matter can be found here. This leads me to another matter that became prevalent in my mind when headteacher Christina Wilkinson had the audacity to tweet about her doubts of the evolutionary theory over that of the faith based ideology. She is entitled to that opinion and, despite what some people have told me, I think it is a relatively harmless opinion. Evolution will still be taught in schools. Children and adults will still be allowed to form their own ideas, based on the evidence presented to them. Whether you think it to be a valid or silly thing to tweet, no one would get hurt or die from it. No harm done, right?

Wrong. Christina Wilkinson received a barrage of abuse over it. I found such a reaction abhorrent. When someone tweets something violent or prejudicial, I join in with the backlash but I found myself wondering why should this woman put up with this anger and aggression.

Then it dawned on me. She started it. She put it in the public domain. We have falsely been lured into this idea that internet trolls, users who seek to post harmful ideas on social media, are an ugly element we need to remove. It's a nice idea that is utopian and dystopian in equal measure. We pride ourselves on being a society of free speech. That means if someone wants to say something hurtful, they have that right. That might seem crazy but there was a day it was offensive to say someone who was black had the right to be treated equally to white people. Most of the equality movements have been built upon rhetoric that was initially incendiary. 

To try to curb free speech to the point that social media contains only certain conversations is a one way ticket to a stealth-like despotism. It is a society where you are told what you have to think. Yes, people shouldn't have to endure threats of violence and death but there are laws for that. To try to cut it further back veers dangerously towards a dictatorship style society.

Trolls, the main antagonists in this river of negativity on social media, are keyboard warriors. Rarely do they resort to genuine acts of terror. They want to say something horrible, either because they believe it or they just want to cause trouble. Yet they are exercising a right. Freedom is an ideal that comes with good and bad. We need to suck it up and deal with that reality.

Returning to Christina Wilkinson and the statement that she started it, I think we have forgotten what social media is. It is not a private conversation between friends. It is a public declaration of what you believe. You are allowed to share that. Guess what? So is everyone else, including people who disagree with you. I'm a budding author (and a thoroughly mediocre one at that) but I was willing to put my writing out in the public domain. One of those pieces, my first book, garnered a review that was less than flattering, which decided to state that the Holocaust was funnier than my book. The review was taken down for being anti-Semetic and I agreed with the finding of Amazon. But I didn't have any problem with someone posting a negative review. That was fine.

I have posted and expressed vocally opinions about various media that I don't like. I have derided chick flicks. I have slammed movies that feature most of the SNL alumni. I think soap operas are awful and young adult novels are predictable rip-offs of better stories. I'm allowed to say that. People can state their cases back as to why Eastenders and Twilight are perfectly decent stories, including why they are better than the ones I've written.

If at any point I did not like any of the negativity I get online, I have one thing to protect me. Better than the Army, the Secret Service and any kind of body armour. It's called a power button. That's right. Those smart phones, laptops and other devices can be just switched off. If you want to be surgical, block and delete options are available on most, if not all, social media sites. 

When you go on to social media and broadcast publicly, you're asking for attention. If you really think you can dictate the kind of attention you're going to get, you're very naive. If you get abuse online and you can't manage it or handle it, stop broadcasting publicly. Take responsibility for what you publish and the realm in which you choose to do so.

Abuse online is terrible. So is bullying. Belittling. Sarcasm. Sometimes, even innocent banter is deeply cutting. We could weed it out, bit by bit, and then we would look back and wonder why we dug up the entire garden of roses. Trolls are an ugly online presence but someone may find your opinions to be ugly. Deal with it and just be wary of trolls in the future. Some are obvious. Some masquerade as social justice warriors. Others pretend to be the voice of the people. Let's not, however, get into this idea that we need to censor the expressions of people in Western society. Yes, you may shed tears over some nasty thing someone says on the internet but remember, your right to speak your mind, some people shed blood for that.

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