Calling all Twitter users: if you believe in the internet, regulate yourselves

Wed, Nov 21, 2012, 00:00

There is a moment in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian when Brian wakes up in bed with his new girlfriend, and opens the shutters.

Standing there at the window, he is confronted by a crowd convinced he is the Messiah.

“You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody,” he yells, exasperated. “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You are all individuals.”

“We’re all individuals!” the crowd echoes.

“You’re all different,” he tries again. “Yes, we are all different!” the crowd shouts, in unison.

As a visualisation for the mob dynamic on the internet, this scene takes some beating.

Just ask Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly identified as the “top Tory” who was the subject of a flawed BBC Newsnight investigation into paedophilia. The programme didn’t name McAlpine, although many internet users put two and two together and came up with the same wrong answer as the Newsnight team.

Of the 10,000 involved in tweeting or retweeting claims, those with less than 500 followers will be asked to apologise and make a small donation to charity. Those with more followers may have to pay more.

What’s astonishing about the case is how many of these 10,000 people should have known better. They include the Guardian columnist George Monbiot; comedian and QI presenter Alan Davies; a handful of journalists; and Sally Bercow, the wife of the House of Commons speaker, John Bercow.

Lawyers for the 70-year-old McAlpine have said people need to understand that the internet is not “a closed gossip coffee shop”, where you can say “the nastiest thing possible with impunity”.

They’re absolutely right. I look on Twitter as a kind of daily miracle – an exchange of ideas; a magical noticeboard; a place to vent, to be inspired, and, yes, to gossip. To date, I have racked up an alarming 20,000 tweets.

But even so, I can’t help feeling there’s something wrong with a club in which you are more likely to be sanctioned by your peers for revealing a plot spoiler in Homeland than you are for wrongly accusing someone of paedophilia.

In the three and a half years I have been on the service, I have encountered some of what might kindly be called fringe elements – but mostly my experience is that Twitter users are the same as people you meet anywhere. They are, by turns, supportive, friendly, incisive, hilarious, inspiring – and occasionally boring, rude or cruel.

But in that time there has also been an upsurge in some less pleasant aspects of crowd behaviour, including a rush to a kind of competitive outrage.

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?”

Breast is best. Chocolate is not

A report by the Food Safety Authority has described how some Irish infants and toddlers are being fed a diet that is “far from ideal”. That may be the understatement of the week.

According to the report, some babies as young as six months old are being given crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks. More than 15 per cent of parents were found to be feeding their infants and toddlers some junk food. The report also highlights how Ireland’s antipathy towards breastfeeding has led to persistently low rates of it.

How have we ended up in a situation where discreetly breastfeeding your six-month-old baby in public is frowned up – but handing them a packet of crisps or a bottle filled with Coke is perfectly fine?

A public display of empathy

Over the past few years, commentators from here and abroad have wondered what it would take to get Irish people on to the streets, what it would take to mobilise our supposedly apathetic young voters.

Now we know. Last Wednesday, as part of the crowd of people who found themselves sitting in almost total silence in the middle of rush hour on Kildare Street, I looked around me and wondered whether this would be remembered as the day apathy died.

The numbers who turned out to protest at the circumstances of the death of Savita Halappanavar last Wednesday in Dublin and Cork were impressive – they were even more impressive on Saturday, and included as many men as women.

There have been larger protests in the past, and louder protests, and protests that had a more immediate impact. But what gave last week’s demonstrations their power was the fact that no one was marching out of an immediate sense of self-interest.

They weren’t protesting over medical cards or student fees or austerity measures – rather, they were out on the streets in the freezing cold because of the quiet anger and the empathy they felt for Savita, and all the other women who have been denied medical terminations in their own country.

They were there because they knew that it could be them one day, or their sister, or their friend, or their daughter, or granddaughter, and because they wanted to say “enough”. It was a mass, public display of empathy – and that is a very powerful message.

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