Moral Maze

Tonight, I made a very nerve-wracking appearance on the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. The script totally deviated from what I had been primed to talk about, namely abuse on the internet, the reasons behind it, the effect it has, what, if anything, can be done about it, in the light of the sentence handed down to Liam Stacey who was convicted of sending racist tweets following the collapse of the footballer Frederick Muamaba.

Internet Abuse

It’s well-documented what I have been subjected to. Death threats, rape threats, violent threats, a prolonged campaign of harassment and smearing, my family have been targeted and at least one person has set up a spoof blog ostensibly to tell others how ugly I am and list all of my various faults and frailties.

The reasons behind it?

Too numerous to mention – most obviously, the Catholicism, not being able to square the person who seems reasonable, articulate, friendly and intelligent, with their pre-existing prejudice of the rabid bigot, foaming at the mouth, wishing to hate and condemn everybody to the fires of hell. I am clearly not stupid, or brainwashed, so perhaps I must be mentally ill? One of the most common insults is that I am some hardline religious zealot, wrapping my hatred, bigotry and prejudice in the cloak and garb of reason.

Another factor is undoubtedly jealousy – difficult to strike the right tone here, but let’s just say I’m not bad-looking, I’m articulate, intelligent, well-spoken, have managed to conceive three beautiful children with no difficulty, a fourth is on the way, I have a happy marriage and manage to get the odd gig writing in the national media. Like everyone I’ve had my share of difficulties in life, at the moment life is challenging in many ways but I have the comfort of my faith and my loving supportive family.

Why do people turn into monsters on the internet?

Because they can. Though many people use the internet under the garb of anonymity for perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons, tweeting under an assumed name emboldens people and enables them to act in ways that they wouldn’t dream of if they thought they could be discovered. It takes little courage to be a keyboard warrior under an assumed name. The internet, twitter in particular, is a great leveller. We know that it’s real Members of Parliament, journalists, celebrities we are talking to, most people do not have a person managing their twitter, and this can give a misleading sense of power. People think it’s their right to be heard, which in some respects is true and under the garb of anonymity all the simmering tensions can come to the fore. The format of Tweets, which are limited to a mere 140 characters, does not allow for nuance or complex arguments, which is why so many of us blog. It gives us the space and opportunity to expand upon our arguments and explore them in greater depth. Tweets and Facebook updates demand brevity which means substance is often sacrificed to style. Everyone is searching for that perfect soundbite, to sum up a situation in 140 characters and grab the attention of those who may be listening. Twitter is a great medium for those who feel politically disenfranchised to feel powerful and listened to.

As there is no face-to-face contact, all social conventions fall out of the window. Normally when we are talking to people, we gauge how to pitch our conversation by unconscious body language cues such as gestures and facial expressions. We tend to respect each others personal space and unless we are in the throes of a full-blown row, avoid shouting and hostile gestures. All of these subtleties of human interaction and discourse are totally lost via social media. We literally become our words, which take on a whole new import. With no social conventions to govern us, it is all too easy to become self-indulgent, shout at other people, give unfettered opinions, use hostile and aggressive language, including profanities, which it would probably never occur to us to use in a real life situation.

Take the prolific tweeter and MP Louise Mensch. Though we might discuss her in private, if we wanted her to know our views, we wouldn’t suddenly run up to her in real life and shout personal abuse at her in order to get her attention. However this is precisely what happens on Twitter. People think it’s perfectly acceptable to randomly abuse or flame someone out of the blue and then get irate when they are blocked. The best way to engage with people in real life is via respectful discourse, and yet these rules are too frequently forgotten on the internet. If I wanted Louise Mensch, Nadine Dorries or even David Cameron to listen to me, I would try to engage with them in ways that showed me to be a reasonable and respectful person, not an utter sociopath. Let’s face it, if your first introduction to someone is them shouting abuse at you, or being extremely hostile out of the blue, it’s not going to incline you to be open to their views. The shutters will instantly come down.

The effects of the abuse

One of the things that I failed to get across, given the limited time, was the sheer scale and speed of the abuse. Though Kenan Malik was correct when he stated that racist abuse has always existed, people have always shouted abuse at each other, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s he experienced racist abuse being shouted at him on the street. The difference between then and now is that though the effect of abuse is no different, be it shouted on the street or typed on the internet, it still feels like a violent assault regardless of medium, what the internet and twitter in particular, enables people to do is to incite mob violence or hatred against a particular individual.

As has happened to me on more than one occasion, a person who takes against your views, is able to incite their thousands of followers in a storm of protest and outrage against you. The effect of this cannot be underestimated as it means every time you go on Twitter you are faced with a barrage of indignation and abuse all stemming from a comment taken out of context. Sticks and stones don’t break our bones, but it is more than a little disconcerting to be faced with a storm of misplaced outraged accusing one of bigotry or worse and ad-hom insults and abuse. I’ll be honest, it drove me almost to a nervous collapse, at a time when I was feeling particularly vulnerable. The answer might be to switch off the internet, but most of us have smartphones and the impact of a non-stop barrage of “you are a bigoted piece of sh*t” and similar sentiments, couched in profane language was akin to a physical assault. It is acknowledged in cases of domestic abuse, that emotional abuse can be every bit as harmful as the physical. Receiving constant hate-filled messages was like being at the receiving end of a verbal mugging. I was literally shaking, crying and too scared to switch on the computer. If I took a break I was accused of cowardice or not having the intellectual ability to defeat the arguments, if I expressed my hurt and anxiety and the effect this was having upon me, I received further abuse for “playing victim”. It was horrendous.

What augmented the situation, is that, as Neil Addison is happy to confirm, having advised me in a private capacity, is that I have been the subject of a pernicious hate and harassment campaign. Various people have been carpet-bombed with allegations pertaining to my mental health. At this point, I need to state that I have no history of mental health problems whatsoever, I do admittedly sometimes suffer a touch of ante-natal depression during pregnancy, but I have never needed or received any treatment for mental health problems. Various strangers were emailed with a series of very unpleasant allegations, a national publication was bombarded with abusive phone calls and emails about me and Neil Addison was sent a series of disturbing and increasingly rambling allegations regarding my mental health and also my family. Every time I had a disagreement with anyone on Twitter, they were sent a series of allegations about my mental health and behaviour, several of them quoted and named the offender behind the campaign. “Caroline Farrow is a nutter with a track record of mental health problems, I have been emailed about her” said one. “What about **** ******’s blog?” said another. Other Catholic bloggers were also contacted and “warned” about me, but had the grace and foresight to let me know what was going on, forwarding on the unsolicited messages they had received.

All of us have a right to our good name and reputation and yet the internet enables unprecedented campaigns of hate and smears which are very difficult to counter. No-one should be too frightened to speak out, in case some deranged individual attempts to destroy their life, on the basis of an ideological difference and a very personal hatred. I almost stopped blogging and came off the internet as a result. The only reason I had a volte-face was that various people – both other Catholics and even journalists in the mainstream media as well as the odd politician contacted me to express their disappointment, to state that they would miss my presence and that a voice should not be silenced or living in fear. To do that would mean that the bullies had won. Some people want me off the net, my presence makes them uncomfortable and they would rather that their views went unchallenged.

There have been times, however when despite the support of my family, the non-stop bullying, threats and haranguing have brought me to the edge. Even now, I am still receiving snarky comments as a result of resuming blogging and tweeting. My daughter’s godfather rang us the other day, he was concerned for me, having randomly met one of the perpetrators of the abuse, been faced with the vitriol and manic behaviour as well as intrusive and personal questions about my family, which seemed more than a little sinister. Fortunately he had the good sense not to let on his close relationship to us, but it shows the lengths to which some people will go and gave him an insight into how upsetting this must have been.

What can be done about it?

There is a problem that needs to be addressed. I know only too well how awful it is to be on the receiving end of such spite, so goodness knows how a really vulnerable person, such as someone with genuine mental health difficulties or a teenager would cope with such an onslaught. When one is in the midst of all this, one simply needs it to stop immediately. Hoping that the offender might get bored is not a short-term solution,because some people are very tenacious and bear grudges for long periods of time. I can well see how someone could be driven to suicide. We all have smartphones these days, so even if the computer is switched off, it’s very difficult to escape the constant notifications of yet another new message of abuse. It is only too easy to see how an adolescent gang can wage a relentless campaign against another who doesn’t fit into their clique. There once was a time that home was a safe space, a place where one could shut the door and escape, but the internet allows all its content, both good and bad to be permanently streamed into our homes 24/7. Perhaps this is another reason why the abuse feels so much worse, because it is very very hard to escape the tirade, which comes at a break-neck speed.

What the internet, Twitter in particular, desperately needs is a code of civility. We need to self-regulate and self-police infinitely better. Whilst I am all for freedom of speech, we have to remember that with freedom comes great responsibility. We need to be careful that our right to say whatever we want, is not a right to abuse other people at will. Free speech should be all about expressing ideas and ideologies, no matter how hateful or distasteful they may be to others. Whilst people should and must not be afraid to express opinions, there is a distinction between ideological arguments and ad-hominems and personal abuse and smear. Whilst some people might find my faith and the views stemming from it, hateful, that can never justify hateful personal abuse being thrown back by way of retort.

This is why I get so upset, because, as I have said repeatedly, abuse, insults, hectoring, haranguing is an attempt to close down debate and de-humanise a person. You are worth nothing, therefore you must not be listened to. Your views only show what a hateful, nasty person you are. That is prejudice and bigotry. Even if a view seems totally alien, it is always important to decipher what lies beneath it, rather than dismiss the person themselves. That is the way to change hearts and minds, and even if one is not successful in those ends, at least one gets an idea of what is motivating the other person and what in society needs to change, if anything, so that people are not driven to extremes of hatred.

Twitter is a notoriously unstable platform. It follows and un-follows people at will. Often you attempt to block people and yet they still turn up in your timeline. If I block someone, it is because I don’t want them to have the power to abuse or upset me. If I can’t see what they are saying, then I can get on with life oblivious. The problem is that despite blocking, those who want to harass and stalk, can still see your timeline. What Twitter really needs to do is implement a system whereby people whom you block are unable to see your tweets. I know that despite blocking the main offenders, they still continue to scan my timeline with alacrity and attempt to contact me. Or they then engage someone else in an attempt to incite them to have an attack. Like Facebook, Twitter needs to stop others from seeing your timeline.

The other thing Twitter needs to do, is be much stricter in its controls. I reported a sexual threat I received the other day to Twitter. To date they have done absolutely nothing about it, stating it falls under freedom of speech. Twitter, on the whole are very reluctant to take action against their users. There needs to be a code of civility which is enforced by both Twitter itself and its users, in order that persistent offenders can have their accounts removed.

A one-off offence should not merit action, however if someone has a track record of stalking, harassing or abusing others, and a number of separate complaints are received, then action should be taken, including reporting this to local authorities as applicable. None of us have a right not to be offended, but equally we do have a right to conduct our lives free of fear, threats and harassment.

Police Action

The general consensus is that the sentence against Liam Stacey was way too stringent. His whole life is going to be defined by one drunken episode, he now has a criminal record, he has been given a disproportionate prison sentence, more than some careless drivers who cause death receive, and is likely to be kicked out of University. All for one drunken, ill-thought out episode. Were a code of civility in place, signed up to and enforced by all users, as well as the owners of social media itself, perhaps this would not have happened.

Journalists accept that they have a responsibility and are generally quite good at self-regulating, hence the outcry about Johann Hari and latterly Robert Fisk. Journalists understand how powerful the written media is and how harmful an inaccurate story can be, or how they have the power to whip up various storms. Social media users need to understand that they can have similar power, if they have a lot of followers and also act in a similarly responsible fashion.

Where the police do get involved, sentances should not be custodial, but should constitute formal warnings that are recorded, breeches of warnings should show up on criminal records, and just as ASBOs are issued for anti-social behaviour in society, some sort of internet version needs to be issued. A persistent abuser (and I don’t mean the pointless troll) should have their internet access revoked for a set period of time, for everyone’s good.

The internet is public space, even if it is virtual, and just as it is not acceptable if someone wishes to conduct a real life hate campaign against you, neither should this be acceptable on the internet. It’s difficult to know exactly where to draw the line, we can all behave rashly in the heat of the moment, but persistent abusers must be stopped and must have a serious deterrent. If someone sent me a letter containing a death threat it would be taken seriously, therefore it is puzzling why this is thought to be less serious or frightening simply because the medium is different.

The Wild Wild West

I have often been told that I need to grow a thicker skin. It is only now that I am beginning to learn some excellent coping strategies. Though the internet should remain a largely unregulated space, it is at times beginning to resemble the Wild West, where only those with the loaded gun dare go out on the streets, the women, children, the elderly, the vulnerable stay at home.

This is not a situation we want to have on the internet. Though no-one has the right not to be offended and everyone should have the freedom of speech, it is a question of balance. One person’s freedom of speech should not be interpreted as a licence to bully. Swearing at people, using capital letters, using demeaning names, this is all bullying coarse behaviour which should have no place in a civilised enlightened society. Your freedom to call me a “dumb bitch” or a “piece of sh*t who doesn’t deserve to live” or worse still call for people to sexually assault me, may dehumanise me, but it may also make others too afraid to join in the general discourse and conversation for fear of what they might receive. That is a freedom of speech issue also. If people are too afraid to join in, either because of abuse, or because they fear their views are too counter-cultural, I know that my views are an anathema to the chattering liberal classes and because the government has regulated what may be seen as an acceptable view, then that affects us all.

What we need is some general common sense, more good manners, courtesy and civility. We need to remember that these are other human beings behind the computer screen. We need to highlight and shame bullies and abuses, not just accept it as an inevitable flip-side or consequence of the net. If only the emotionally strong should venture into the saloon bar of twitter, where public discourse on current affairs and politics is the order of the day, then an important voice is denied to the weak. That is not democratic and nor can we be said to be truly free.