Is there a freedom of speech argument for Twitter Mobs?


Last week I wrote that Twitter mobs were undermining the freedom of expression – a vital human right and a cornerstone of a free society. In response it was pointed out that Twitter mobs are exercising freedom of expression as well.

It is certainly true that many of those who express their opinion firmly on Twitter are doing exactly that – exercising freedom of expression. However there are those – and I’m thinking of the Cybernat bullies right now – who are akin to those who shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no such thing. They are a menace and their freedom of expression is rightly curtailed by society.

It is absolutely right that thousands of those who were, like me, appalled by the reported comments of Sir Tim Hunt were able to express that anger on social media, including Twitter. Yet a calm and rational analysis of what he said indicates that he made a particularly poor joke – and that his audience clearly understood that it was a joke. At what point does righteous anger become bullying in itself?

Nicola Sturgeon has acted this week to curtail the activities of the so called Cybernats; those people who are zealous supporters of Scottish Independence and who border on xenophobia towards the English, who use social media to abuse anyone and everyone who disagrees with them – from Jim Murphy, former Scottish Labour leader, to Nick Robinson, who had the temerity to ask Alex Salmond a question at a press conference and therefore showed himself to be an “English b*****d”.

Yet most of those involved in a “Twitter Mob” are not actually co-ordinating – so those forty seven thousand people who demanded that UCL sack Sir Tim Hunt from his Honorary Professorship were actually forty seven thousand individuals expressing their freedom of expression.

The biggest problem with social media is not the “threat” to freedom of expression, but actually the level of abuse and rudeness which people believe that the relative anonymity of the internet allows. If the reasonable person wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it at all.