Do we deserve Twitter?

After racism and sexism have abounded on Twitter, perhaps we are not worthy of it.

Twitter has been hailed as a landmark advancement in technology and freedom of speech. Joe Public can now converse with his favourite celebrity, journalists can share their stories and MPs can communicate with their constituents like never before.

But in a world where people exploit such an open platform to flaunt blatant racism, defend a convicted rapist and betray his victim's anonymity, are we really clever enough for such a tool?

On Tuesday 27 March, 21-year-old Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in prison for inciting racial hatred moments after Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed at White Hart Lane. His comments read: “LOL. F*** Muamba. He's dead!”, followed by racist jibes at anyone who admonished him, calling them “n****r”s, “Aids ridden” and advising them to “go pick some cotton.”

All this was published on Twitter, plain for anyone with internet access to see. Whatever you may think of his sentencing – and 56 days does seem rather harsh for such a crime, community service being a far more practical approach – Stacey is clearly a racist idiot, and it was laudable that so many spoke out against him.

This weekend was a rather depressing one in terms of Twitter's trending topics. No, for once the UK feed was not dominated by One Direction or Justin Bieber, but by the defence of physical abuse. At the same time as #letchrisintotheuk – calling for the Home Office to let Rihanna-beater Chris Brown into the UK after he was banned in 2010 – was trending, so was #justiceforched and #freeched, streams of victim-blaming misogyny claiming that footballer Ched Evans, sentenced to five years for rape, was innocent. The eloquent commentariat that is the British public called Evans' 19-year-old victim a “dirty slut”, a “money grabbing slag” and a “c**t”. People who weren't in the court room and did not have access to incriminating evidence thought themselves in a better position to judge than the jury who convicted him.

Victim-blaming is never OK, and admittedly what feminists call “rape culture” does seem to have got worse in the past few years. But the fact that Twitter now makes it so easy for women haters to express their bile means that a huge number of people have access to this kind of vitriol: women, children, Evans' victim herself. Some Evans fans even thought it clever to start a kind of hate campaign against the teenager and name her; while police say they are now on the case to bring the offenders to justice, many would argue that with the information out there, the victim's life has become doubly scarred.

So is Twitter more harm than what it's worth? Perhaps it's not even an issue. The site is hardly going to be censored, and even if it was, where would the line be drawn? What of other blogs and websites bombarding the public with information that is at times racist or sexist? After being handed this platform, we're not getting rid of it any time soon.

The argument boils down to the age-old tension between freedom of speech and incitement of hatred. Why shouldn't someone who believes Ched Evans is innocent be able to express their opinion?

Many would argue that in exposing hateful comments, Twitter has revealed the true nature of societal views. It is, in many ways, like a farcical reality TV show, playing out public opinion. And with everyone watching – which they are – more and more people can be held to account if their views are offensive.

Yes, we are going through a rough patch. It's true that tweeters have a lot to learn. But to look on the bright side, showing up some people's mishaps can influence others for the better. We are yet to see if the outers of Evans' victim will be brought to justice, but the treatment of Stacey has set an example to anyone so brazen as to tweet their racism. We can only hope that we will learn how to cope with such a tool.

Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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