It may feel morally righteous, but it's entirely subjective
Social media affords us untold opportunities to communicate with strangers. But it also opens us up to abuse.
Take Twitter. As the number of people who read your tweet increases, the probability that at least one of them says something hurtful, threatening or offensive tends to one. It doesn’t matter how innocuous the message; there’s always someone who responds in an unsavoury manner. “Cats are cute are they? So I guess you hate dogs!”
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And of course, Twitter abuse can be a lot worse than a single nasty comment hidden below the “Show additional replies” button. There are the infamous “pile-ons”. Scrolling through dozens of nasty comments — in the aftermath of a well-targeted pile-on — can be distinctly unnerving.
What, if anything, should be done about this? The Government’s answer, in the form of the new Online Safety Bill, appears to be: criminalising unpleasant behaviour. “Trolls could face two years in prison for sending messages or posting content that causes psychological harm,” The Times reported on Monday.
How this will work in practice is not yet clear. But it sounds like a recipe for disaster. The classic exceptions to free speech — such as fraud, libel and incitement to violence — are all relatively well-defined. “Psychological harm” is not. In fact, unless the government plans to start measuring stress hormones in our blood, it’s entirely subjective.
“Your honour, my client suffered significant psychological harm when the defendant called her a ‘ninnyhammer’ on Facebook.” And even if we could measure psychological harm objectively, it would still be wrong to criminalise the sending of “psychologically harmful” messages.
After all, such messages could be “psychologically beneficial” to others; for example, they might find them funny. As it stands, the Online Safety Bill poses an existential threat to the greatly-diminished British comedy sector. The problem with jokes, you see, is they often come at someone else’s expense.
We already have libel law to protect individuals from false claims that might damage their reputations. The notion that we need a law to protect them from false claims that might hurt their feelings borders on the absurd.
What’s more, there actually is an effective way to neutralise malicious accounts on Twitter: it’s called the “Block” button. Other tried and tested methods for avoiding online abuse include looking away from the screen, and not joining Twitter in the first place.
None of this is to say that I approve of nasty behaviour online. I just don’t want to see it criminalised. The new Online Safety Bill can be summed up as follows: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… well, they could get you sent to prison for two years.”