Social media: Reclaiming the Internet

For free and diverse speech to flourish, it requires an environment of respect and diversity

 

The launch of a national campaign by a cross-party group of politicians against online misogyny and abuse in the UK is timely, given the scale of the problem on social media which recent research has revealed. The Reclaim the Internet campaign, initiated by former Labour minister Yvette Cooper, is calling on individuals, organisations, employers, law enforcement agencies and tech companies to take a stand.

Modelled on the Reclaim the Night campaign against misogynistic violence on the streets, the campaign seeks to build a broad consensus on what action should be taken, and has launched an open consultation process to that end.

In some cases, including threats of violence or the use of so-called “revenge porn”, abuse is clearly criminal. The time is ripe for a debate on whether social media companies act effectively enough against such material, and whether it is addressed by the police and courts with sufficient robustness.

However, in many instances abusive behaviour may be unpleasant, oppressive and objectionable, but is not illegal. Often, it reflects an online culture where standards of civility have become debased. Women are clearly more likely to be targeted online, but new research has found that some kinds of sexism (such as aggressively accusing women of being a “slut” or a “whore”) were as likely to come from young women as young men, reflecting a wider culture of abuse.

There is no simple answer to the problem. Everyone who is active on social media has a part to play in setting standards and refusing to tolerate abusive behaviour. Employers have a responsibility to establish clear guidelines and ensure their employees are protected in the workplace.

Schools have a clear role to play in helping their students to become fully aware of what is unacceptable and of what to do if they find themselves under online attack.

When this subject arises, it is characterised in some quarters as an attack on free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth; for free and diverse speech to flourish, it requires an environment of respect and diversity.

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