Online bullies’ abuse is censorship, not free speech

Back in the days when Usenet was the main place online for discussion (if not the only), before web forums and blogs had been heard of (or at least, were anything like as sophisticated as they are now), there was a huge debate about spam and how to deal with it. Spammers used to post adverts in huge numbers to every group available, and a small group of administrators and their friends used to post “cancels” which told forum hosts to remove the original postings. This was, as you can imagine, only a partial solution as some people would see the spam, but it reduced it. It also wasn’t very efficient, as network bandwidth wasn’t as plentiful as it is now and one message had to be cancelled out by another. The spammers’ friends (and a few naive civil libertarians and a number of ‘kooks’ who all had axes of one sort or another to grind) protested that this was censorship and went against the freedom of speech guaranteed by the American constitution. The admins’ response was that they were, in fact, protecting freedom of speech, and that the spammers were the censors as they clogged up the forums everyone else was trying to use for their free speech.

At that time, only spam was ever removed, and that was judged purely on how many times an identical (or nearly identical) post was issued. A post purely being advertising was not grounds for removal, and neither was abuse. In this day and age, abuse has become a kind of censorship. Newspaper websites and blogs leave spaces for comments, and all too often they are filled with ignorant and bigoted nonsense, to such an extent that people generally often them: browser plugins have been developed to suppress the display of newspaper comments, and I often see links to newspaper stories that advise me not to read the comments.

I have always had comments on my blog, and I had thought the level of abuse had decreased considerably but then, that is because the volume of comments I get on my blog has gone down considerably since the heyday of individual blogging in the mid-2000s. At that time, I was having to deal with a lot of Islamophobic comments coming from a handful of people who also read blogs like Little Green Footballs, Jihad/Dhimmi Watch and Harry’s Place, and their comments had to be restricted (through moderation) because otherwise they would totally dominate the discussion on what was meant to be a Muslim blog. (Two of the three blogs mentioned have changed character since that time: LGF went liberal towards the end of Bush’s presidency and disassociated itself from the Christian conservatives and anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists although it did not move from its pro-war position, while Harry’s Place has shifted from being a “decent” pro-war centre-left blog to being primarily a pro-Israeli blog.)

This past week, two articles were posted in the Guardian about this kind of online abuse: this one by Mehdi Hasan, a former editor at the New Statesman now working for the Huffington Post, and another by Gary Younge which explored the “free speech” defence used by online racists and their defenders. The consequences of the abuse, if in big enough volume, are that people other than the bigots simply stop using the forums, as Gary Younge found he did after a few months of contribuiting to the comments on Comment is Free:

Sensitivity is not a sign of weakness – it is how we all get through the day. The trouble is that not everybody is deemed worthy of it. People feel comfortable saying things about Muslims or black people, as a group, that they would never say about white people or Christians, as a group. Similarly they feel comfortable saying things about Muslim and non-white writers they would never say about other writers.

Which brings us to the first consequence. That what you write has an effect. If you write something racially offensive then those you have offended will be less likely to participate. The hostile environment to which you have contributed will also become, by definition, a limited and limiting one. What you end up with is a community, where people are excluded because of who they are that then shrinks to a fetid ecosystem including only people who are just like you.

It certainly has an effect on me. When Comment is free started I regularly came in below the line. After a few months of abuse I mostly gave up. As much as I believe in open journalism I don’t believe it’s my job to wade through racist filth in search of the many gems that undoubtedly may lurk beneath. If I can get into a thread early enough I respond. Otherwise I only do so when moderators have the time to point me to engaging comments worthy of a response.

Mehdi Hasan noted in his piece that an article he wrote about Ramadan in August 2011 had received “an astonishing 957 comments, the vast majority of which were malicious, belligerent or both” and that his articles regularly receive insulting comments, including one calling him a “goatfucker” which was on article that was not even about Islam. He also notes that every promotion of a Muslim in public life and every statement they make has led to a backlash, usually from the right, not only in his own case when he was made an editor on the New Statesman, but Sayeeda Warsi, the MP Sadiq Khan and Labour peer Nazir Ahmad have also faced attempts to force them out of their position on spurious grounds linked to their religion. The agenda, he seems to be suggesting, is to force Muslims out of public life and to deny us a voice in any ‘respectable’ publication.

On Wednesday, the Guardian posted a compilation of various non-white writers’ experiences of racism online, including Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote, and all of them reported extreme hostility in the comments boxes of the websites which had published their articles, sometimes including private emails of a threatening nature. In response to this, Harry’s Place published an article titled “Promoters of Racism Complain About Racism”, alleging that Simon Woolley had once held a rally supposedly in support of the Nation of Islam, a group with a long history of anti-Semitism and often ridiculous anti-white bigotry, as if to discredit their entirely unrelated reports of the racism they encountered. In fact, OBV publicised a rally (not held by the NoI) in reaction to a police raid on one of their religious premises on the false belief that it was in fact a marijuana factory. What happened to them could have happened to any majority Black organisation or business and there is a long history of this in London. It was a legitimate Black anti-racist rally, regardless of the racist views of the NoI.

Smears of this nature are a standard tactic of the pro-Israel lobby: they seek to ‘expose’ any links anyone had, however tenuous, to ‘racism’, which can mean simply not supporting their pro-Israel line. They are well-known for running letter-writing campagins in which they bombard journalists and newspapers who write or publish stories or articles which do not treat the Palestinian cause with the same contempt they have for it with letters, to give the impression of a mass outrage rather than an orchestrated attack. Some fairly prominent Zionists openly class anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism and, because Jews are identified as a race, not merely a religious group, that allows them to call anti-Zionism racist. The article by James Bloodworth that I responded to a week ago advocating no longer calling Islamophobia what it is was reposted at Harry’s Place, a Zionist blog dedicated these days to policing which Arabs and which Muslims have any place in British public life on the basis of whether they are in the interest of Israel, so when a vocal and privileged ethno-religious minority with avowed links to an oppressive regime abroad can throw accusations of racism at its critics, they cannot be allowed to de-legitimise their opponents word for prejudice aginst their own religion.

I think Gary Younge does not go far enough when he concentrates on racists’ “free speech” defence. Many of the racists and other bigots who take over discussion threads with their foully-worded comments (probably including the misogynists commonly called “men’s rights activists” who post obscene comments, including threats of rape, on articles written by women, particularly if it has a feminist or otherwise controversial theme) may well be part of organised campaigns, and they know well what they effects of their behaviour is: the suppression of debate to their advantage. There needs to be some kind of investigation of where the flow of garbage is coming from, because it is inconceivable that such a barrage of hostility could just come out of nowhere without any coordination. There are a number of groups with an agenda with the resources to mount an online hate campaign: the far right and the pro-Israel lobby (judging by the nature of the articles and comments on some of their own blogs) are the two most likely suspects. There should be no truck with any “free speech” defence: their purpose is to deny others free speech by making the spaces they might use it as unfriendly as possible. It is censorship.

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