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Twitter – Just Another Tributary of the Online Cloaca Maxima

August 7, 2013

Try as I might, I don’t get Twitter. Perhaps it comes down to the fact that I don’t choose to be confined to 140 characters when there’s something I want to say. Maybe it’s because I’m not a celeb with half a million followers hanging on my every inanity. I’m not a politician, an author, a revolutionary or a chef. And for God’s sake, I have no desire to strike fear in others, let alone blow up a middle-aged lady or rape a member of Parliament.

I adore the lady in question – Professor Mary Beard – and all her works. She’s a breath of fresh air. A gorgeously uncool representative of my generation who has done more to popularise the Classics – a subject close to my heart – than any other academic. I don’t know what drives her to tweet. Does Twitter her help her to sell more books? I have no idea. Or does the epigrammatic possibility of the tweet appeal to the classicist in her? Maybe.

Whatever the reason, it’s shocking that she should attract such vicious online harassment from people who probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish Latin from Chinese, or Pompeii from Chicago because of the way she looks, and because of her opinion, expressed on TV, radio and, of course, Twitter, that anonymous abuse should be confronted and stamped out.

In the UK we have laws prohibiting expressions of hatred and threats of criminal acts. They should be enforced. And in a democratic society governed by the rule of law there should be no place for anonymity. A poison pen letter is poisonous whether it’s online or whether it’s constructed from cut-out letters stuck on a piece of paper and sneakily slipped through a letterbox.

Things get complicated when the rule of law extends beyond expressions of hatred. When it’s illegal to criticise individuals or government policies. Should critics of human rights abuses or corruption in high places – who run the risk of arrest on matters of principle – be protected by the cloak of anonymity? What about corporate whistleblowers who open themselves to retaliation by their employers and their colleagues?

If we condone anonymity in one country and not in our own, are we being hypocritical? Should we celebrate the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring, yet condemn its use in the London riots of 2011?

You could argue that applications like Facebook and Twitter – like the internet on which they sit – are blank canvases that can be used for good and evil. That the owners are responsible to their shareholders for managing the risks of operating on a country-by-country basis, including places with a different view of social control than those that apply in western democracies. You could take the view that morality doesn’t come into the picture unless the shareholders and customers deem it to be relevant. That owners should either comply with the law in each country without regard to the perceived morality of those laws or refuse to operate in countries whose laws run counter to their principles.

But it’s not a simple as that. How, for example, do you stop a religious extremist posting hate-filled messages on Twitter via a proxy server even if the application is banned in the country of the user? Where there’s a will there will be a way.

So are we at the point at which we have created a place that we cannot control? Where the dark internet seeps into the light, where the trolls surface to do their dirty work, where the hackers boast about their exploits and the leakers expose the stuff our governments don’t want us to know?

The answer most likely is yes. Manning, Snowden and Assange, the plotters and money launderers of Al Qaeda, the cyber-fraudsters, the hackers for hire and the trolls will always be one step ahead of government efforts to stop them. And when governments themselves use similar tactics and techniques for their own ends – state-sponsored hacking attacks, online surveillance and disinformation campaigns – it’s little wonder that lines are blurred between morality and expediency, official and freelance, criminality and justice.

So in a way, those pathetic individuals sending their billets doux of hatred to people like Mary Beard are as irrelevant in the big picture as everyone else who for a variety of reasons spends an inordinate amount of time tweeting narcissistic inanities. They are part of a much larger phenomenon.

As India Knight wrote in last week’s UK Sunday Times, Twitter is like a huge pub where like-minded people gather to vent their prejudices. The fact is that you don’t need to go to the pub, and you don’t need to use Twitter, however seductive it might seem.

Mary Beard is entitled to express herself freely using whatever medium she chooses. But you have to ask whether Twitter is worth the grief, the anxiety and the expenditure of police time in tracking down the droves of malicious losers that haunt it.

The nasties are out there, virtual or physical. Just as going into the wrong place at the wrong time can entail certain risks, so it is with the virtual neighbourhoods that can be fun to visit yet where danger also lurks.

The internet was never the Garden of Eden. Every application that sits on it is capable of being subverted, perverted and exploited, and anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve. So don’t be surprised if each criminal prosecution for harassment, each libel action and each dumb utterance sparking public ridicule increases the likelihood that Twitter will wither on the vine and disappear as quickly as it emerged.

I for one won’t mourn its passing. Not because I’m a miserable killjoy, but because something else is sure to take its place. That’s the world we live in.

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