What would you do if somebody told you you were ugly, or stupid, or bad at your job? What if they did it repeatedly, every day, for a sustained period of time? What if it wasn’t your mother or your lover or anyone you know at all, but a total stranger? Or a horde of them, all at once? Face to face, it’s an unthinkable (if engagingly surreal) proposal, but online it’s often par for the course. Many people with public profiles are routinely abused: celebrities, politicians, influencers, unfortunate members of the public caught in a news cycle. Putting aside the grotesque, graphic violent messages also sent with horrendous regularity, unkind (but not criminal) insults are sent every day on social media.
In its proposed Online Safety Bill, the government describes such posts as “lawful but harmful”. The bill, if passed, would see the vast problem of hateful online behaviour addressed with the blunt force of the legal system. It would place the onus on social media platforms to eliminate extremist material, illegal pornography and hate speech, threatening them with enormous fines for failure to do so. More ambiguously, it would place a duty of care upon them to protect users from harmful content. This is a different and separate enterprise to mandating the removal of already illegal content. It seeks to ban online messages and posts not based on their legality, but instead on the psychological effect that the message creates in other users. (After hearings earlier this month, a joint committee will publish a report into the bill by 10 December.)
The disputable nature of the “legal but harmful” rule would make for a law that was either totally useless or disturbingly workable, vulnerable to insidious manipulation and opening the door to unwarranted censorship. The endlessly interpretable question of what can be said to cause harm is left ambiguous. This is not acceptable. A law must not depend on the subjective reception of a legally allowed message. That I might find rude tweets or Instagram comments directed towards me hurtful shouldn’t mean that my feelings magically render them illegal. If they contain hate speech or direct threats then they are already illegal; such attacks are plentiful enough without us twisting ourselves into knots trying to understand what is allowed as legitimate criticism and what is instead now banned as harmful.
I, maybe more than most, have benefited from aspects of online life. Much of my early writing career was forged through begging emails to editors I followed, I met at least half of my best friends on the internet, and my boyfriend on a dating app. Remove the internet from my experience of life and you remove all of its current core components. If anyone should be a defender of the way we use the internet, I should be. And yet if I had the power to go back and never participate, I would do so. Jobs, friendships, romantic partnerships have always been around and I would have found them in some guise or other. What is not recoverable is my perception of other people – and myself – as basically benevolent and good spirited.
I am a member of that funny in-between generation who didn’t grow up with habitual internet use but enthusiastically and quickly embraced it as young adults. I had a pre-existing idea about the world before the internet, which wasn’t especially starry-eyed or optimistic. I was your typical nihilistic teenager in most ways, but I liked the people I liked and barely thought of let alone spoke about those I didn’t. I assumed this was true of others also, until I led an online life. In real, analogue encounters, only the spectacularly reckless or sadistic bother to voice how much they hate your innocuous foibles. I’m sure plenty of people disliked me before I had a Twitter presence, but I was happily unaware of the reasons why.
Over the decade I spent on that website, it increasingly dislocated my trust in others and myself, because I became myself as snide and impulsive and argumentative and angry as many others were – for a time. There came a point that it was actively exacerbating otherwise dormant mental illnesses. I had recurring nightmares about a man who had sent me detailed sexual fantasies in which he humiliated and hurt me. I lost the ability to regard others with good faith, and I realised how terribly destructive it is to be seen so intimately by so many people, people who have no actual place in your life. For all the benefits of the internet, that one inescapable wrongness overrides them all.
So I say all this not to argue that our online culture should remain as it is. Instead, I say this because I view it, largely, as so malevolent and corrosive of the human spirit that I dread useless measures being thrown in its direction. I particularly dread measures that would give the Tory government extra powers to surveil our private behaviour, and to arbitrarily decide what speech is to be banned. It would be impossible to objectively judge which comments are legal but harmful, and which are legal but merely unpleasant or ill-conceived. The problem is the internet itself, from which we may only choose to disengage, not to reverse its advent, no matter how much we may sometimes wish to.
[See also: The pandemic has made social media unusable]