You wouldn’t have expected an 18th century author to feature at the heart of a 21st century court case around online abuse, but a couple of years ago that’s exactly what happened.
Novelist Jane Austen had been proposed as the next person to appear on the £10 note – following a campaign that highlighted the complete lack of female representation on British notes (apart from the Queen of course).
The campaign sparked an outpouring of misogynistic and sexist abuse online. One of the (many) people targeted with this abuse was Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow in the UK.
Why? Because she had supported the campaign. In response she started receiving offensive tweets, from one person in particular, which included threats to rape her. The perpetrator ended up being jailed for 18 weeks.
This is not a lone case.
In 2015, MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, launched a campaign to end sexist bullying on the web. In response she (ironically) received huge volumes of online abuse, including one concerted attack by internet trolls that resulted in over 600 messages sent to her in one night threatening to rape her.
More recently, an Amnesty report found that Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, received more abuse than any other MP during the 2017 election. In fact she received nearly half of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the six weeks leading up to election day.
The issue has become so acute that a debate into the abuse and intimidation that parliamentary candidates faced in the last UK General Election will take place tomorrow.
The output of that debate could have interesting ramifications. Last month, for instance, the UK government was considering creating an internet ombudsman to deal with complaints about hate crimes. Meanwhile, in Germany, a new law will take effect on 1 October where social platforms such as facebook and twitter will be fined – up to €50 million – if hate speech isn’t removed within 24 hours.
This is all part of an ongoing debate around where the fine line between hate speech and free speech should be drawn. The timing of this is highly relevant too. Next year represents the 70th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights being adopted by the UN, which gave us the right to freedom of speech “without fear of government retaliation, censorship, or societal sanction”.
Some people feel that, if free speech is moderated, it’s just censorship under a different name, as this Washington Post editorial argues. But would the internet be safe for us all to use without any moderation?
News aggregator site, Reddit, certainly seems to believe that moderation is necessary. In 2015 Reddit took a bold decision to reverse its prior policy to not ban “questionable” content and started removing communities from its site that were focused on extremist views and hatred of others. A report out this week from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University and University of Michigan found that Reddit’s move was indeed successful in reducing the level of hate speech posted online.
“For the banned community users that remained active, the ban drastically reduced the amount of hate speech they used across Reddit by a large and significant amount” Source: Georgia Institute of Technology
As an author known for her social commentary, if Jane Austen was alive today she would undoubtedly have a say on the issue. As it is the new £10 note featuring Jane Austen will launch tomorrow. Here's hoping it won't spark the same level of controversy as when it was first announced. Although its use of animal fat in its make-up might fuel some 'interesting' conversations for some time still...
At Crisp we work with global brands and platforms to monitor and moderate content online across multiple platforms. Together we work hard to create a safe place for people to interact online and we take pride in our work in addressing prejudice online.
To find out more on this subject, and have your say, read this article about the concept of unmoderated social media. The legality around hate speech is another interesting aspect of the debate, which we cover in this blog. For more information on social media moderation visit www.CrispThinking.com.