Calling all Twitter users: if you believe in the internet, regulate yourselves
War on Twitter
This week, the conflict in the Middle East was being played out in the series of gleeful tweets that emanated from the Israeli Defence Forces account, and were promptly retweeted around the world. Hamas and its followers retaliated in kind: horrifying images of the mutilated bodies of dead Palestinian children and a video of the moment of death of a Hamas commander were co-opted to become part of a particularly gruesome viral campaign.
But it doesn’t take war to get people on the internet worked up. Stick the word “outraged” into the Twitter search box, and you’ll find people being outraged over the X Factor results; migrant deaths at sea; the lack of legislation on the X case; the fact that Subway’s sandwiches are sliced by robots; Christmas lights; and even each other’s lack of outrage.
All this outrage can be a force for good – without it, it’s unlikely that up to 1,000 people would have turned up at Leinster House to protest at the death of Savita Halappanavar last week.
But sometimes – as in the McAlpine case – it hits the wrong target. The question now is whether a 70-year-old man who has never used Twitter could end up being the force for change that the internet needs.
Lots of people want something done to re-introduce basic civility on the web. Unfortunately, no one seems to agree on what that something is.
It would be a shame if Ireland were to go the direction of Britain and start landing people in prison for being obnoxious idiots, like the young men jailed for posting offensive remarks about a dead child on Facebook, or for posting racial abuse on Twitter.
And few people would want to see a rash of civil cases directed against people who tweet intemperate things at one another. Freedom of speech might suffer.
But freedom of speech doesn’t mean the freedom to say whatever the hell you please. It needs to be weighed against others’ freedom from abuse; their right to their reputation; their right not to be subjected to hate-filled tirades simply because you don’t like them or their politics, or you once heard a rumour about them.
The approach of McAlpine’s lawyers may prove more compelling than any voluntary code of practice drawn up by social-media providers.
If you believe the idea of the internet as a healthy and robust marketplace of ideas is worth fighting for, the best option for now is to regulate yourself.
As Brian’s friend Reg might have said: “After all, aside from worldwide connectivity, Google, Wikipedia, email, video calling, online gaming, blogging, social media, dancing chipmunks and cats on escalators, what has the internet ever done for us?”