Authoritarianism and social media

I’ve observed the ‘storm’ over the proposed monitoring of e-mail and social media with a sense of bemusement. It’s difficult to know which authoritarian proposal or action is going to ignite moral outrage these days, because so many pass with little comment. The ‘Minority Report’ pre-emptive arrests on account of the Royal Wedding were reported but quickly forgotten (and, judging by conversations with my own peers, many people remain unaware they ever happened). The authoritarian clampdown around the Olympics has been more widely reported but, again, doesn’t seem to have ‘caught on’ as an issue. In fact, it has inspired barely concealed reactionary sympathy from cuddly liberal icons. I think it’s also safe to say that many of those expressing outrage over the government’s plans were far more equivocal about state monitoring of communications and, indeed, state crackdowns in general, during the English riots.

What I’ve found really interesting, however, is that there has been an almost kneejerk response to these proposals because they involve the government (and in some quarters, a Conservative/Lib Dem government – let’s not forget that Labour were plenty authoritarian during their time in office). Because we don’t really have to look very far to believe that the state in its broader sense can easily ‘monitor’ online communication and, further, get the populace to do it for them. We all know the story of the guy reported, arrested, charged and convicted over his tongue-in-cheek ‘threat’ to blow up an airport. We all know because it was one of those things which ‘caught on’. It was a liberal cause, with Stephen Fry leading the charge.

Fry has played a leading role in many ‘twitter storms’. When Jan Moir wrote her silly, awful column about Stephen Gately, he again led the charge. As with Paul Chambers, people reported Moir to the police.

Then, last week, you have the jailing of Liam Stacey for racist tweets he posted regarding Fabrice Muamba. Stacey had less than 300 followers on Twitter and his vile comments would clearly never have been seen by the target, or indeed anyone beyond his followers, had they not been seized on and swiftly shared/commented on by thousands of others. Clearly, he deserved to be challenged. Yet, once again, he was reported to the police. He was apparently convicted of “a racially-aggravated public order offence to incite violence”. Who exactly was in danger of being incited to violence isn’t exactly clear; the avalanche of condemnation was swift and explicit. Yet people wanted his head – so much so that, bizarrely, many started posting screencaps and Youtube videos of his comments in order to ‘preserve the evidence’. You can still easily find these, post-conviction. The comments were vile, certainly, but no-one who seriously believed that they could ‘incite’ anything would share them further and long after the event (one of the Youtube videos, consisting solely of his tweets, has 100,000 views).

Of course, there is absolutely no equivalance between what Paul Chambers tweeted and what Liam Stacey did. This was reflected in the response to the involvement of the state in both cases: while the former inspired outrage, the latter inspired celebration or pointed disinterest. No one could defend Liam Stacey’s utterings and that made any broader implications of his conviction moot.

Yet the implications (if they weren’t already clear) were hammered home soon after when people began to question why we should stop with Stacey. Demanding similar action against homophobic utterances on social media sounds almost reasonable. However, when Louise Mensch was desperately trying to ignite a twitter storm over a Labour councillor’s tweet gloating over the death of Thatcher, many supporters compared it to ‘hate speech’ and, with grim inevitability, a few people tweeted that they had reported it to the police. The Guardian has had an implicit campaign of late regarding the ‘online abuse’ of female writers, with several writers arguing that this also is ‘hate speech’ and should be punishable in law.

This is the path we’re on – one where thoughts, comments, words, ‘threats’, deemed unacceptable by different sections of society, are pounced on and reported to the authorities. It’s almost always done in the name of ‘other people’ – protecting ‘other people’ from offence, the threat that ‘other people’ may be inspired to do bad deeds, the belief that ‘other people’ lack the ability to read these things in the same way that we do. Criticism of it is dismissed glibly, as if its rightness is so evident that anyone questioning it is already beyond help.

It reminds me of the panopticon . I’ve shared that article before – it links the concept of the panopticon to social media in relation to marketing and ‘capitalist realism’ but its relevance to this discussion is clear:

…inmates had to presume guards might be watching them at any given moment, which meant, according to Bentham, that they would have to behave as if they were being watched all the time. In this way, the Panopticon, by its very structure, created the effect of total surveillance, while allowing for actual surveillance to be intermittent and even absent.

The government doesn’t have to legislate for constant monitoring of our online communications. It doesn’t have to because we do it ourselves and we are so very quick to run to the state we don’t wish to monitor us when we see things we don’t like. This will always be justified with an appeal to the most indefensible of communication and the weakest of minds reading it – in the exact same way that governments justify their authoritarianism. Censorship and state control can be (and is) far more sophisticated and subtle than we tend to believe. If we are outraged by state ‘intrusion’ into our communications, we should all think about the role we play in it.

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