The professional bullies of talkback radio and the tabloid terrorsphere are bellyaching about trolls on Twitter. This is like Bernie Madoff condemning shoplifting or BP ticking off householders for pouring toxic cleaners down the sink.
Yes, it’s pot-kettle-black territory folks. Here are media outlets that specialise in mock outrage and building audiences through calculated invective, abuse and hysterical name-calling suddenly turning all new age and sensitive. What’s more these people make a substantial living out of the professional trollery, shouting down their critics as enemies of “freedom”.
Yet, this same group of ruddy-faced, vein-popping demagogues and mouth-breathing scribblers now want the government to regulate to shut down the anonymous trolls who use Twitter as a tool of character assassination and an avenue to spread lies, misinformation and propaganda. Well blow me down.
Wasn’t this the same crowd who a short time ago were warning that that the sky was about fall in because of the Racial Discrimination Act finding against conservative polemicist Andrew Bolt? Again one suspects that the freedom banner only flies with these people when they are defending the rights of the powerful to kick the powerless, underprivileged and voiceless. When the boot is on the other foot, oh well…
When I posted this point on Twitter, the cartoonist Jon Kudelka replied that it worked the other way as well. In other words, you couldn’t argue for tighter regulation of the mainstream media while accusing the MSM critics of Twitter of being overly sensitive and censorious.
The simple answer to this is that no-one is defending the use of social media for anonymous and hateful attacks on anyone – public figures or otherwise. However, higher standards of conduct apply to journalists and commentators in the mainstream media who enjoy a power, privilege and reach not available to others.
How to balance freedom of digital expression with the need to protect people against stalking, bullying, hate speech and other forms of internet trollery is the subject of a recent thoughtful white paper by UK legal academic Jacob Rowbottom of Oxford University’s faculty of law.
Rowbottom points to a few cases in the UK where authorities have delivered disproportionate penalties to those found guilty of social media-related offences (including one man jailed for four years for jokingly creating a Facebook page based on the London riots). The answer, he says, to over-regulation is for authorities to distinguish between “high-level” and “low-level” digital communication.
The high-level type he defines as professionally produced, aimed at a wide audience, well resourced and researched in advance. The low-level communication, by contrast, he classifies as amateur content that is spontaneous, inexpensive to produce and is akin to everyday conversation.
“This does not point to a cyber-libertarian conclusion that amateur expression online should have no constraints,” Rowbottom adds. “Some very real harms can flow from digital communications, affecting people in a way that offline conversations cannot. If a type a speech is so harmful that it requires a legal response, the laws should be framed in a way that protects the freedom to converse and any controls should be proportionate.
“The casual amateur speaker with limited resources or legal advice should be held to lower standards than professional journalists or even those involved in a protest, who have greater guidance on the ground from the police. This does not mean complete freedom from any responsibility, but that any regulations should be suited to the digital context, and the procedure and sanctions should be proportionate not only to the harm, but to the level of responsibility expected from the speaker.”
This approach seems to me a much more sensible and pragmatic framework than either shrieking calls for the government to ‘crack down’ on Twitter trolls or the high-minded US-style hand-on-heart calls for the preservation of liberty and our sacred freedoms.
Perhaps, the federal government’s response to the Convergence Review, when it finally arrives, will cover this need for a distinction in the law.
In the meantime, if those freedoms really are so sacred, why are conservatives so reluctant to support a constitutional right to freedom of speech? Or is their chest-beating really about protecting the rights of the powerful to slur the powerless and use their deep pockets to silence their opponents through the courts?