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
Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.