From hate speech to cyber-bullying: is social media too toxic?

Saturday 22 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Cinema 2 Contemporary Controversies

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Earlier this year, Leslie Jones, a black actor and star of the revamped Ghostbusters movie, quit Twitter following a torrent of abusive and racist tweets, including some comparing her to an ape or featuring images of her face covered in semen. Hers was not an isolated case. Over the past few years, we’ve heard of countless similar stories where individuals, from sports stars to feminist activists, school students to public officials, have been subject to a barrage of abuse on social media. So what is going on? Is social media a peculiarly toxic environment? After all, as some have observed, there does seem to be something about the veil of anonymity, the lack of face-to-face interaction, that encourages some individuals to indulge in behaviour the offline world inhibits. Or are we making mountains of cyber hate out of the molehills of idiots? And are we in danger of undermining free speech in the process?

Social media platforms, from Facebook to Twitter, certainly seem to think there’s a problem. Facebook’s global head of safety admitted that it was failing to deal with rape threats and abuse, and Twitter’s chief executive said that it ‘sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform’. But, in the rush to clamp down on online hate speech and cyberbullying, are we overreacting to comments we should be able to brush off? And are we losing something in the process? As troll-in-chief Milo Yiannopoulos said after he was banned from Twitter, has ‘Silicon Valley forgotten the critical importance of open free speech in our society’?

To those campaigning for tighter restrictions on what you can and can’t say on social media, the free-speech argument doesn’t hold. What of the free speech of those harassed into silence by a stream of abuse? And what of the abuse itself, consisting, as it so often seems to, of fantasy punishments and name-calling? Is that speech worth defending? For critics of tighter regulation of social media, it is. Not because of the abusive behaviour itself, but because of the principle - that one man’s hate speech is another’s free speech. So should we really be snuffing out hate speech on social media? Or do we need a virtual-reality check on the hype about cyber hate?