Is there a freedom of speech argument for Twitter Mobs?

Social-Media-Collage

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.

7 Leaders Debate will make no difference in the end

So David Cameron’s chicken run – insisting on 7 participants in the Leader’s Debate – has been proven to be sound and sensible tactics for the Tory leader.

What do you do if you are stuck facing a debate you cannot win but you cannot get out of? You engineer it so that so many people are taking part, your opponent can’t win either. Then you refuse to engage and allow the smaller parties to beat your opponent up because he can’t avoid taking on every question.

So it proved last night, as David Cameron faced six other party leaders but no actual scrutiny. Ed Miliband again exceeded expectations by failing to fall flat on his face, and was only trounced on the exceeding expectations front by Natalie Bennett; after her interview last month she pretty much just had to prove she could remember her name.

Yet it was Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon who were proclaimed the winners of the debate. I’m not so sure. Nicola Sturgeon undoubtedly won the Scottish election and has put serious pressure on both Jim Murphy and Ed Miliband – without Scotland, Mr Miliband stands little chance of entering Downing Street on his own, and if Labour are nearly wiped out there, Jim Murphy will struggle to survive as Scottish Labour leader, despite the fact he has only just taken over and cannot really be blamed for failing to prevent the catastrophe of someone else’s making.

But Nigel Farage was borderline racist, and made some truly vile statements. It may be true that two thirds of patients who happen to be HIV positive are immigrants. So what. The UK has a history of tolerance and fairness, a cultural desire to stick up for the underdog. There won’t be many voters who want to see people who are HIV positive sent back to countries where anti-retroviral drugs are simply not available. That’s a death sentence.

Mr Farage no doubt solidified his base support – around 12% of the electorate – but I doubt he made the real breakthrough he needed to make to get above 15-20% and win more than five or six seats. Indeed, for me, he has gone from a right wing Tory to someone who has seriously flawed ideas who should never be allowed to represent this country. The country I love does not turn its back on the sick just because of an accident of their birth.

All seven of the politicians were full of hypocrisy – Miliband attacked Cameron for failing to take enough measures against tax avoidance, and for representing millionaires, despite his own election as leader being funded by a hedge fund millionaire and despite having helped his Mum avoid inheritance tax. Farage hilariously attacked people who went to private schools for dominating politics. That would be Nigel Farage, alumni of Dulwich College.

Nick Clegg attacked the Tories as though he hadn’t just spent five years in Government with them, and the Green Party’s Australian leader Natalie Bennett attacked all the main parties over their stance on immigration – it is wrong to keep people out, she says. I don’t know enough about Scottish or Welsh politics to immediately identify the porkers that Sturgeon and Leanne Wood made, though I am sure they existed. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, said she spoke for the Welsh people, yet Plaid Cymru is the fourth most popular political party in Wales…

In short, Cameron avoided a stumble, Miliband avoided a stumble and Clegg got out almost unscathed. As expected (and as in 2010) the higher TV profile helped the smaller parties – Leanne Wood was unlikely to be a household name even in the kitchens of political nerds – but in the end I doubt the debate will have changed many votes. Polling suggests many people are still yet to make up their minds, so this morning it will be back to the campaign trail for the various political candidates.