Free speech or online horror?

IN Digital Media | 24/10/2012
Incidents of trolling involving new technologies have turned the spotlight yet again on the debate on freedom of expression vs. regulation.
The cloak of anonymity has become an ideal tool for bullies, says MAYA RANGANATHAN. Pix: Chinmayi Sripada, playback singer who was harassed on Twitter, NDTV.com

It is not clear when exactly the tide turned, but the euphoria over new communication technologies allowing freedom of expression seems to have now surely been replaced by a caution bordering on fear. Doing the rounds online and offline are tales of violence and horror propagated by using some of the recent and most popular social networking tools.

To recall some incidents reported recently: On October 10, Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old in Canada committed suicide after being relentlessly hounded online for a few indiscretions, including passing on pictures of her breasts to a man (“flash”) who she had befriended online, who later turned her blackmailer.

A month-and-a-half earlier, on August 31, Australian television celebrity Charlotte Dawson was rushed to hospital after she attempted to drug herself to death following a barrage of abusive messages on twitter that included taunts such as to “stick your head in a toaster” and “kill yourself”'.

The husband of murdered Australian Broadcasting radio presenter Jill Meagher whose body was found a week after she was reported missing on September 22 in Melbourne, Australia, had to expressly request supporters not to unleash abuse on “Facebook” against the killer, for fear of jeopardising the judicial trial.

The most recent issue of Gawker’s outing of ‘Violentacraz’ who created community after community devoted to sharing content that was offensive, often violent, and disturbing, from the influential and fiercely pro-speech Reddit.com, a social news site that allows sharing of online content.

On October 23, acting on a complaint from Chinmayi Sripada, a popular playback singer based in Chennai, the police arrested one and spread the net for more who had been harassing the singer online.

Damning criticism of opinions expressed in the public space is nothing new. Writers and journalists are expected to brave acerbic comments, couched in sarcasm or words dipped in vitriol. But what has changed now is they can no longer fall back on their media outlets’ policies for moderation of feedback or assert their right to have the last word. Online technologies with their ability for  instant communication that can bypass traditional “gates” and the brevity that allow for quick sharp retorts, have catapulted criticism to a completely different plane.

More significantly, criticism and censure is no longer confined to journalists, writers, or public figures. The technologies that allow any and every one “to put themselves out there”, also put any and everyone under the scanner. The cloak of anonymity that these technologies provide has made them the ideal tool for bullies constrained offline by societal norms to unleash terror online--a trend that has led to the evolution of “trolling” (“trawling”). “Trolling” is a term used to refer to responding to messages in a way purely aimed at provoking emotional responses. Not surprising then that trolls are often personal and outside the field of discussion.

Supposedly derived from the French word troller, a hunting term, “trolling” online has in the past been associated with “flaming”. Psychological studies on the reasons for it are many. The issue has come up in media discussions in the past with the Communication Powers Act, 2003 being invoked in the UK to arrest two persons so far for posting offensive messages on a tribute page. The recent incidents have again renewed debates on whether unbridled anonymous expression, the very characteristic on which projections of the new media technologies being the ideal tool to empower the marginalised rest, is so desirable after all. It has led to a campaign against Twitter trolls by the Daily Telegraph in Australia and an hour-long discussion on trolls in SBS’s television weekly programme.

Of course, the most vociferous argument in support of free media remains that any constraints placed on new media technologies would negate the raison d’etre of their popularity. To ban use of pseudonyms and to force users to reveal their real identities, veteran trolls say, would be “a war against free speech of the common man”, the inference being that common men will be denied a privilege that journalists enjoy. Also “veteran” trollers assert that trolls are not necessarily a harmful activity with most of them stating that they are conscious of the lengths that they would go to in having “fun”. Apparently, trollers lose interest when they are unable to elicit a response.

Online assaults

However, visibly disturbed participants in the television programme recounted their encounters with online assaults and called for more stringent measures, regulations, and even laws to ban anonymity online which encouraged and protected such behaviour. When RIP pages can be defiled with inflammatory or provocative messages then it is time for society to take a good look at itself and for the state to take note, they argued.

The complexities in the debate are best brought out by the way the “victims” of trolls have themselves employed the medium. Amanda Todd and Charlotte Dawson used the very technology that made their life hell to alert the world to what they were grappling with. Amanda told her story of harassment using flash cards in a nine-minute video which she uploaded on to You Tube, and Charlotte Dawson’s last words on Twitter before she attempted to take her life were: “you win.”

Adding yet another dimension to the debate is the Reddit.com issue. Adrian Chen of Gawker.com, a US website, revealed that one of its trolls “Violentacraz”, who had shared explicitly sexual content featuring teenage girls, was Michael Brutsch, a white, middle-aged Texan programmer. He was subsequently “outed” by Gawker. This created a furore among the pro-speech users who, in order to register their protest against the act, ironically resorted to a “ban” on Gawker articles.

Pertinent question

The sagacity in regulating speech and expression purely in the interests of not hurting sensitivities and sensibilities cannot be disputed. However, in the era of globalisation and political correctness, the question that defies a simple answer is: “where does one draw the line?” When one is unaware of the reach of the technology and the potential audience, how does one tailor a message so as to take into account everyone’s sensibilities? Or is it, as “Weev”, a troll, who was arrested and charged in 2011 for hacking into the US AT&T servers, said in the television programme, that each one of us have come to  live in a bubble unable to take the slightest prick? When images of a chair dangling from a tree recall the “ghosts of racism”, is it an indication that we, as a society have grown so sensitive that we no longer see the wood for the trees? The fear is that in course of time the border-defying technologies will lead to an extreme form of self-censorship, with political correctness dictating that nothing can be said at all.

This is a debate that is going to be resurrected time and again as technologies evolve, societies change and world politics becomes more muddled. Media technologies are no longer the preserve of trained personnel but are now common man’s tools to communicate anything and everything. At every point then consideration of freedom or regulation must perforce take into account far more than media perspectives. There is more than the issue of freedom of expression at stake here.  Indeed, a simple regulation may do more harm than help people and the situations.

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