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.