Sunday, 18 December 2016

Free the trolls.



You do not have a right not to be offended,  insulted or verbally abused. You do not have that right because it might be right to offend, insult or verbally abuse you. You might believe stupid things, or even sensible things, and take offence at any and all critiques, rebuttals and refutations. You might be a pompous prig, a sanctimonious sop, an officious orifice. Even if you are not these things, there would be very little wrong in telling you you are. After all, you are not a six-year old child: you’re an adult. You can take it.
What of someone expressing their detestation of you, their hatred of you, wishing you ill, wishing you dead?

No right here, either. Perhaps you deserve to be detested and hated, perhaps you deserve harm, even deserve to be dead. If you do, it may be entirely right to say horrible things of you. If you don’t deserve these things it may be wrong, perhaps very wrong, to speak to you like this. Or it might just be an instance of hyperbole.

The problem here is that these kinds of speech may be right or wrong and whether they are may depend on very subtle factors of context. For both these reasons these are not matters for the law but for civil society. Unfortunately the law is making an ass of itself over all this  and those calling for it to make an even greater ass of itself are making asses of themselves too. There is a very clear a bright line for where the law may impose on speech: speech that threatens or incites what is in some other way illegal, such as violence; or speech that conspires to commit what is in some other way illegal; or speech that defames an individual.

‘Troll’ is one of those vile concertina words through which sophists give themselves away. It’s condemnatory content is justified by claiming it means someone who says nasty things and then it is used to condemn people for disagreeing with you, for demanding you make logical sense, for showing you up for failing to make logical sense, for winning an argument against you, and so on  (for more on this kind of rhetorical trick see my post last month on Motte and Bailey Doctrines, http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/09/motte-and-bailey-doctrines/  where I also discuss another trick I call a Troll’ s Truism).

By and large, trolls are not crossing that bright line. Unfortunately, many people are trying to blur that line to criminalize trolls. They are often doing so in a deliberate attempt to suppress opinions they detest  and arguments they are losing (e.g. see the Gamergate controversy). That is to say, they are doing it for Orwellian thought control reasons. Of course, they never put it like that. Bootleggers know very well how make use of Baptistry (see Yandle 1983). http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/regulation/1983/5/v7n3-3.pdf.

A recent instance of blurring is the article yesterday by a journalist, Andrew Critchlow. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/11156999/Why-I-reported-a-troll-on-Twitter-or-in-the-pub-threats-are-never-OK.html. Critchlow contrasts the situation in a pub where someone interrupts your conversation abusively and then, having enlisted her friends, moves on to threats and incitement of violence. Obviously she should be arrested, charged and convicted. Critchlow then equates this to the situation on twitter when he says ‘the fact that this situation happened to me recently online makes it no less dangerous’. That’s obviously false. In the pub you are in immediate danger of being beaten up or worse. Not so on twitter. Nevertheless, I certainly agree that someone crossing that line on twitter should also be arrested, charged and convicted.

However, it is not clear that the case Critchlow is speaking of is one in which the line has been crossed. Critchlow reports being ‘verbally threatened on Twitter last week by a fellow journalist for a blog I had written about cycling’. One must wonder what work the modifier ‘verbally’ is doing here. We’re talking about twitter: you can’t deliver a non-verbal threat. A threat of violence would be the default in the context of his article so the modifier implies some other threat was in play.  Perhaps all it was was a threat to show Critchlow to be a fool for what he said.

Critchlow then goes on to say that ‘surely any behaviour, or language that is perceived by the recipient to be violently threatening and abusive is exactly what the police should be investigating as more of our public discourse and interaction shifts online’.  This is an almost perfect example of the way in which the bright line is blurred. First, he’s muddling behaviour and language. But what people call violent language may be merely nasty language that uses extreme terms, and that is not a concern of the police at all. Violent behaviour, of course, is. Second, he’s talking about perceptions rather than reality. People have all sorts of weird perceptions and interpretations of what is said to them:  the police should not be investigating mere perceptions, only veridical perceptions. Third, ‘violently threatening’ might mean a violent threat, i.e. a threat of violence; or it might just mean threatening something that is not itself illegal, such as saying something nasty, which threat was delivered by the use of violent language as I defined it above. Fourth, he is further muddling that ambiguity with abuse. ‘Abuse’ is another of those concertina words. If you object to exaggeration, suddenly, by ‘abuse’ they meant physical violence, but when you take the pressure off, ‘abuse’ just means something they don’t like, such as calling them an idiot.

Critchlow then finishes with a complete non-sequitur: ‘If not [i.e. if the police are not to investigate these perceptions], then are we prepared to stand by and allow the internet to become some virtual zone of anarchy where the law no longer applies?’. This is a frankly ridiculous call to suppress free speech… and exactly where you will end up if you studiously blur the lines in the way Critchlow has done.
Critchlow hopes that ‘others will follow my example and use the law to stand up to cyber bullies’. ‘Bully’ has become yet another of those concertina words. It used to mean someone who beats you up, engages in physical humiliation, uses violent intimidation, often enlisting others to join in. But cyber bullies do none of that. They just say nasty things.

Because of Critchlow’s relentless blurring of the very lines that matter, it is unclear whether others should follow his example. If Critchlow was actually threatened with violence then he was certainly right to call in the police and I hope the person who threatened him will be convicted. But if he wasn’t then he wasn’t and I don’t.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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