The state of public discourse

There are a lot of articles around at the moment about the parlous state of public discourse, and the levels of vitriol that are fast becoming normalised, particularly in debate conducted online.

Dr Anne Summers recently gave an important and shocking speech about the treatment of our Prime Minister.

There had been a number of articles written about the twitter attacks on Charlotte Dawson.

John Birmingham has used his blog to discuss the misuse of comments on blogs and similar sites, especially by people who hide behind anonymity.

A number of commercial sites have reviewed their commenting policy in recent times. Some now explicitly require politeness and reserve the right to refuse to publish offensive comments. Some go further and require a full name and location.

When I read his column I thought about the echoes of HG Wells‘ The Invisible Man. Shortly thereafter I discovered that I was far from the first person to make the connection: I found an academic paper online, making the same point (in a much more considered way).

When people have the cover of anonymity, they are prepared to do and say things they would not otherwise do or say. It turns out that when it happens on the internet, this has a name: online disinhibition effect.

Sometimes this can be a force for good, like whistleblowing.

But invisibility, and therefore the absence of social scrutiny, can do strange things to morality.

Outwardly normal people can be quite horrible when they think no one will know that it is them. Google the story of “Caz” and “The Hack” for an example.

This sort of uninhibited behaviour brings down the tone of online discourse as a whole. As Dr Summers has noted in her speech, things that seemed shockingly offensive only eighteen months ago are now quite tame, and obscenity has become commonplace. As she has also observed, people are now openly saying horrible things, as if they were normal. On Facebook, people are openly putting their name to things that would have caused them to be shunned in polite society until recently.

What is to be done?

Dr Summers says we should always call out this type of behaviour. There is an opposing school of thought being promoted in some of the articles around: “don’t feed the trolls“. The argument is basically that if you acknowledge the abuse, you simply spread the message further, delighting and encouraging the abuser. I think there is no categorical answer and the correct response depends on the circumstances. If someone is trying to provoke a reaction, perhaps they are best ignored. But if someone is speaking abusively just because it has become normal to do so, then calling them on it, politely, might help stem the flow of vitriol.

What about online comments? I am a strong supporter of requiring a name and address.

I remember, back before the Internet was in common use, having to provide a full name, address and phone number when submitting letters to the editor. People certainly did not have a sense that they were entitled to have their comments published. Those who wanted anonymity could request that their name and address be withheld, but that did not relieve them of the need to provide those details before their letter was considered for publication.

None of this is a curtailment of free speech. Those who are able to create meme-style pictures, send offensive emails, or post bilious comments on blogs and Facebook, are able to self-publish and have all the free speech they like within the bounds of the law. Let them do so; but keep the mainstream news media and blogs civilized. A right to free speech is not a right to use others’ publications as a platform from which to exercise it.