Internet trolls and freedom of speech

Emma Jane, on today’s Punch, discusses the ubiquity of the internet troll in internet forums, social media and via email.


If only all trolls on the net were this harmless

Emma raises the point at the end of the article that we should shut down legal loop holes to curtail those who pedal vile hate speech on the internet.

One of the definite downsides of having a mainly anonymous internet means that anyone can say whatever they want, without fear of repercussion. I think this leads many to almost an exaggerated recklessness, or a fearlessness, of the impact their words have on others. Opinions can become increasing strident and the rhetoric heightens so that many contentious discussions become a ‘take-no-prisoners’ affair. My experiences on some online philosophy and political discussion forums certain bear out that ruthless vitriol goes hand in hand with faceless, anonymous interaction. I certainly don’t envy those, such as politicians, activists and journos, who cop a lot of flak from those in the community with a belly full of hate and a desire to vent in on all who they oppose (Emma Jane’s recollections on this are particularly disturbing).

However, are restrictions on what can and can’t be said really the best way to deal with the issue? Is the best way to preserve free speech to deny it to some? I would contend that this would be the totally wrong way of dealing with this issue. Freedom of speech is a hard won freedom, bought with blood, sweat and tears of those who have gone up against tyranny in the centuries preceding us. Many people have fought the oppressive power of tyranny, usually in the form of absolute monarchy (and too often welded to church power), and its clamp down on their voices. It is always the first recourse of the dictator to restrict free speech before denying it all together.

If there is one thing the gospel of our Lord Jesus teaches us in this area, is that all men have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We cannot trust the good nature and benevolence of those who hold the keys to free speech and the free flow of information to do the right thing. All are compromised by the selfishness of human rebellion against God and so we cannot be certain that they won’t abuse the power vested to them.

Instead, the best solution to a bad use of free speech is actually more free speech. The voices of hatred and ignorance should be contested by those who reject their nonsense. For example, I despise the Birther movement and its questioning of Barack Obama’s natural-born citizen status. In my view, it is actually racism because if Obama was white, no one would ask if he was a natural born citizen, a requirement to be President. This is all about people’s unwillingness to accept a black man as President.

How should we best respond to this bulldust? The wrong way is to find a legal mechanism to squash those voices who claim that Obama is disqualified. It won’t stop them from venting their stupidity and it turns them into martyrs, as well as opening the door for the government to use their powers against those who speak the uncomfortable truth. Instead, whenever they speak out, those who understand the truth should speak up against them. The solution isn’t found in government but in the people and in collective community action. Rather than relinquishing our responsibility to government, we should see it as our duty to our nation to speak out.


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