Last year I wrote about the increasing authoritarianism which surrounds social media and has seen people arrested and even convicted for their words online. We’re seeing it again with the current ‘storm’ around Paris Brown, which has gone viral on Twitter and has led to the great and the good of Twitter leaping to her defence. This intrigues me – last year’s case of Azhar Ahmed, convicted for posting an ‘offensive’ message about British soldiers on Facebook, springs to mind as both are young and both landed in trouble due to ostensibly ‘private’ (ie they weren’t addressed to anyone in particular and weren’t ‘harassment’) messages they posted on social media. Despite initially being charged over a year ago, a search on Ahmed’s name returns less than 1/9th of the Google results which a search on Brown’s does. Indeed, it’s safe to assume that most people will never even have heard of Ahmed and issues of race and the idiotic sanctification of the armed forces no doubt play a large part in that – many will be absolutely fine with him being arrested and convicted. Yet he was a private citizen making an ‘idiotic’ comment whereas Paris Brown came to our attention due to being the inaugural ‘Youth Crime Commissioner’, an odd job which apparently is intended “to reduce the gap between younger people and the authorities” and commands a salary of £15,000 a year. As someone who has actively applied for and obtained a public role (and the first such role in the country), it’s a no-brainer that she would attract scrutiny. So much so that it’s staggering that no-one seemed to consider that social media could have become an issue as some simple precautions (such as checking her tweets before appointment, making her account private or deleting it altogether) could probably have avoided this whole mess.
Does she deserve to be persecuted? Of course not. Nothing she wrote is anything more than idiotic. Yet I’d be very curious to see who leapt to her defence if her words were less banal brainfarts and more ‘offensive communications’ such as Ahmed’s. Cases such as the latter seem to arouse little ire when, to me, they are far more sinister than that of a newly-appointed public figure being found to have said some dumb things which relate to her new job.
Paris Brown seems an interesting choice for people like Owen Jones to be defending and it largely seems to be down to the fact that she has been ‘exposed’ by the Daily Mail – a point which most have fixated on. It’s a truism on Twitter that if you ‘offend’ a prominent left-leaning figure you are quickly deemed to be a ‘troll’ and you deserve everything you get; if it’s the Daily Mail (or The Telegraph and so on) who get up in arms, it’s absolutely fine. The eagerness to kick the Daily Mail seems to have led some to rather odd positions. Jones asserts that her future may be ruined due to her “behaving like a teenager” while Dorian Lynksey sums up her behaviour as “in short, she is a teenager”. Joanna Moorhead in The Guardian writes that she “did what every teenager in Britain does”. This is an absolutely bizarre argument, seeming to suggest that the Daily Mail took it upon themselves to comb Twitter for the ramblings of some random person rather than investigated someone who was suddenly (and voluntarily) very high-profile. Furthermore, the ‘they’re a teenager’ argument strikes me as ridiculously patronising. It’s been quite a while since I was a teenager but I’m fairly certain that most don’t refer to gay people as ‘faggots’ or assert that they become racist when they’re drunk. In fact most teens aren’t even on Twitter. Contrary to this ‘oh we’re all awful dickheads when we’re teenagers’ narrative, it would have been relatively easy for Kent to find a teenager without Brown’s baggage and while we can certainly understand the follies of youth, it’s absurd to imply that being a teenager necessarily means being homophobic or lacking self-awareness. Lynskey makes a comment, as I have before, that he’s glad Twitter wasn’t around when he was younger. Yet if I think back to when I was a teenager do I think I would have been tweeting heavily-loaded offensive terms? Would Lynskey have been? Do we think any of the journalists defending her would have been?
Funnily enough, last year one of those sympathetic to Brown had a very different take on a 17-year old tweeter. Graham Linehan noted in the case of “@Rileyy_69”, who was arrested for tweeting abuse (and a lame death threat) to Tom Daley:
As a symbol of free speech, Riley69 is not Lenny Bruce. He’s not even the EDL. He’s a teenager going through that thing a lot of teenagers go through where they seem unable to feel empathy. This kind of temporary sociopath can be very dangerous and using these new tools they can wreak havoc more efficiently than ever before.
He was all for Riley’s arrest – there was no ‘oh teenagers!’ on display here. Yet Riley69 wasn’t a public figure, just someone who had tweeted idiotic comments to a celebrity. If Tom Daley had quickly blocked him, almost no-one would have ever heard of him. Instead Daley alerted his followers and we ended up with people like Linehan defending Riley69’s arrest. The logic, then, that it’s simply awful to bring to light the casual homophobia/racism etc of a newly-pointed police figure but fine and dandy to arrest someone of the same age for their idiotic tweets seems rather…pained. It’s for this reason that I have zero doubt that, had Brown’s tweets not came to light via the Daily Mail but rather (say) through some left-wing blogger who presented them as highlighting her use of ‘faggots’, the response from many would be very different.
As I’ve made clear previously, I think the offence taken on Twitter tends to be overblown and nothing that blocking or a breather can’t fix. I think it should very rarely be an issue for the authorities. Sadly, the logic of people like Linehan and others who fixate on ‘trolls’ and use their profile to draw attention to people who offend them feeds directly into an atmosphere where everyone is ready to pounce on anyone who says the wrong thing. It’s really not that big of a leap from asserting that some rubbish insult is unacceptable and something must be done to the cases of Azhar Ahmed and Paris Brown. Everyone feels entitled to their outrage and this seems unlikely to change, requiring some self-awareness and caution when online. Unfortunately research is suggesting that we’re becoming less compassionate and empathetic and this is most pronounced in teenagers. We do, after all, live in an age of narcissism; of self-obsession; of reality tv and stars who are big on sassy put-downs and low on social engagement; of individual and ostentatious ‘creativity’ being seen as the highest goal to which we can aspire. Hell, perhaps a lot of this has to do with over 30 years of atomising neoliberalism and Paris Brown is neatly illustrating Thatcher’s Britain. Whatever the case, we should stop presenting it as inevitable that teens are going to embarrass themselves online and realise that it’s a tool which we all need the skills to use. We need to think about how and why we use social media. It’s certainly not only teenagers who use it to find, express and validate their identities and it can only be a good thing if we think more about who we are in a fundamental sense offline. In the meantime, things like this are only going to keep happening and things will never change unless we start wondering why.