What would you do if someone told you that you are ugly, stupid, or not doing well at work? What if they did it repeatedly, every day, for a long period of time? What if it wasn’t your mother, or your lover, or someone you know, but a complete stranger? Or is there a whole crowd of them at once? Face to face, this is an unthinkable (albeit grippingly surreal) proposition, but online it is often the norm. Many people with public profiles are regularly abused: celebrities, politicians, influencers, unhappy members of the public caught in the news cycle. In addition to the grotesque graphic reports of violence, which are also posted with horrifying regularity, unkind (but not criminal) insults are posted on social media every day.
In the proposed Internet safety bill, the government describes such messages as “legal but harmful.” If passed, the huge problem of hateful behavior on the Internet would be tackled with the hard power of the legal system. This will place responsibility on social media platforms to eliminate extremist material, illegal pornography and hate speech, threatening them with hefty fines for failing to comply. More ambiguously, this would impose a responsibility on them to take care of protecting users from malicious content. This is a different and separate undertaking in relation to the mandatory removal of already illegal content. It seeks to ban online messages and publications not on the basis of their legality, but on the basis of psychological the effect what the post creates in other users. (Following a hearing earlier this month, the joint committee will release a report on the bill by December 10.)
The controversial nature of the “legal but harmful” rule will make the law either completely useless or frighteningly workable, vulnerable to insidious manipulation and opening the door to unjustified censorship. The endlessly interpretable question of what can be said about harm remains controversial. This is unacceptable. The law should not depend on the subjective perception of the message permitted by the law. Just because I find rude tweets or Instagram comments addressed to me offensive shouldn’t mean that my feelings magically make them illegal. If they contain hate speech or direct threats, then they are already illegal; There are many such attacks, and we will not twist ourselves into knots, trying to understand what is allowed as legitimate criticism, and what instead is now prohibited as harmful.
I, perhaps more than most, have benefited from various aspects of online life. Much of my early writing career was built on emails asking editors that I followed, I met at least half of my best friends online and my boyfriend on a dating app. Take the Internet out of my life experience and you will remove all of its current core components. If anyone is to be an advocate of how we use the Internet, then I must be. And yet, if I had the opportunity to return and never participate, I would. Work, friendship, romance have always been around, and I would find them in one form or another. What is incurable is my perception of other people – and myself – as benevolent and good-natured.
I belong to that funny intermediate generation that did not grow up on the usual use of the Internet, but enthusiastically and quickly embraced it in their youth. I had a pre-Internet world view that was not particularly rosy or optimistic. I was a typical teenage nihilist in many ways, but I liked the people I liked and hardly thought about talking about those I didn’t like. I assumed this was true for others as well, until I started my online life. In real, analog encounters, only impressively reckless or sadistic people can tell how much they hate your harmless weaknesses. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t like me before I started on Twitter, but luckily I didn’t know why.
Over the ten years I have spent on this website, I have increasingly undermined my trust in others and in myself, because I became as sarcastic, impulsive, controversial and angry as many others – for a while. The moment came when he was actively exacerbating latent mental illness. I constantly had nightmares about a man who sent me detailed sexual fantasies in which he humiliated and hurt me. I lost the ability to honestly treat others and realized how terribly destructive it is to see so many people so close, people who really have no place in your life. For all the benefits of the Internet, one inevitable wrong outweighs them all.
Therefore, I am not saying all this to argue that our online culture should remain as it is. Instead, I say this because I consider it to be largely malevolent and corrosive to the human spirit, and I fear that useless measures will be thrown at it. I am particularly wary of measures that would give the Conservative government additional powers to monitor our personal behavior and arbitrarily decide which speech should be banned. It would be impossible to objectively judge which comments are legitimate but harmful and which are legitimate but simply unpleasant or ill-considered. The problem is in the Internet itself, which we can only abandon, and not reverse its appearance, no matter how much we sometimes might want.
[See also: The pandemic has made social media unusable]