First reclaim society, then the internet

I’m sure that we all agree that online abuse is repellant, and needs to be tackled. Somehow – and that is where that fine ideal gets much tougher.

I wasn’t surprised to read the BBC’s report of a study which estimated that, on Twitter at least, women were “posting 50% of misogynistic tweets.” I was a little puzzled, though, that this news item of 26 May 2016 concerned a DEMOS report which was dated May 2014.

Had this report been sat in someone’s inbox for two years, or was there perhaps a different story inside it? Sure enough, it was really about the far less clickworthy Reclaim the Internet campaign.

In its own words, “the campaign has opened an online forum to discuss ways to make the internet less aggressive, sexist, racist and homophobic”, where “you’ll find questions, discussion, personal testimony and ideas on how we can take a stand against online abuse, whether that’s misogyny and sexism, racism, homophobia or violent intimidation.”

The first problem that I run into is that “the internet” is obviously the wrong term. However you care to construe that term, there is nothing abusive, aggressive, etc., about “the internet”. I suspect that the campaign is actually using it as a circumlocution for “Twitter, Facebook, online forums, and other online vaguely social media”. That still covers a great deal, but if you’re going to try to find ways to change something, you must first be clear about what you want to change.

My biggest problem, though, is that, unless we radically change the way in which people are able to access these online media, the only way in which we can hope to change behaviour there is to change those people.

Online mass social media, such as Facebook, rely on high mass and popular use to generate their profits. If you had to pay £/$100 per month and obtain the sponsorship of a couple of senior members in order to have a Facebook account – as you might for membership of a golf club – then hardly anyone would use Facebook. Its business model depends on mass use, overwhelming popularity, and ease of membership.

That non-selectivity means that a lot of abusive people – the ones that don’t get to join exclusive golf and social clubs – will be members, and will be able to be abusive online. Trying to police that substantial minority is an impossible task. It raises very difficult questions over free speech which no one has yet been able to resolve satisfactorily. It also raises major commercial conflicts with the provider of the online medium: banning everyone who someone might deem as behaving abusively or hatefully quickly becomes impossible to enforce, and detrimental to your bottom line.

No one seems to be asking why there seem to be so many abusive people around – not just on the internet or its social media, but in cars, on the street, in shops, bars, and pretty well anywhere that we go (even, on occasion, in those exclusive golf and social clubs). For so long as society propagates abusive behaviour, anywhere that we go, physically or online, we will have problems with abusive people.

Everyone will have their own ideas about what makes so many people abusive. I’ll just go for three of the most obvious, and high-profile, targets: the press, politicians, and education.

Although I am quite a bit younger than the wonderful Germaine Greer, I was sixteen when her first and seminal book, The Female Eunuch, was published. Those were the days when it was not just legal to recruit only men for many jobs, but it was quite normal to do so. I had a friend who was told quite openly that, as a woman, she would not succeed as a surgeon.

I am frequently shocked that in the nearly fifty years since the publication of that book, there has been so little change in many parts of society, particularly some sectors of the press, which are among the most popular. It seems that hatred sells many millions of copies of newspapers, and rousing feelings of hatred against minorities remains as popular today as it was nearly fifty years ago. Play to the gallery, play on people’s fears and ignorance, and you will only magnify those fears and ignorance.

This is a common theme for many politicians, including some campaigning to be the head of major nations. When those prospective leaders are overtly misogynist, prejudiced, and abusive, what hope have we that people will not be? Over that nearly fifty years, the parading of abusive and hateful ideas by politicians has, if anything, increased. What should be reasoned political debate over important issues rapidly collapses into the same ad hominem attacks which we say we want to stamp out online. If we see it happening on TV, how can we possibly eliminate it from online social media?

Our politicians have also let us down in many respects. Society has always been deeply divided in terms of affluence and opportunities. What is starkly apparent now is that, far from increasing social mobility, many of our politicians and leaders have been making the divisions more deeply entrenched. Those who have not, and are so readily punished for their most minor transgressions, see the rich (including many politicians) profiting from the avoidance of paying taxes, and living their lives by quite different rulesets.

But nowhere have they let us down more than in education policy. Some years ago I was staggered to hear that UK high school children (11-16 years old) were being told that the purpose of education was to get qualifications which would enable them to earn more. When you motivate your children by avarice, and encourage them to excel by trampling over others, rather than on their own merits, those children will become adults for whom abuse comes easy.

These are far greater challenges than the high ambitions of the Reclaim the Internet campaign. But unless we rise to them, and tackle the causes of abuse in society as a whole, we have no chance of changing anything in online behaviour.