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By Anna Cooban
The internet is arguably an example of human innovation at its best. Many felt a surge of pride when Tim Berners-Lee – the British inventor of the World Wide Web – featured so prominently in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, reminding us of just how far we have come. Yet, inevitably, there persists a darker, less palatable side to this technological revolution for which social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, along with their ever-expanding memberships, must be held to account.
The term ‘internet troll’ represents the all too prevalent wave of vicious virtual attacks directed against some Twitter and Facebook users. Most pertinently, the media storm surrounding teenage Olympian Tom Daley brought to our attention this unsettling reality of modern communication. After Daley failed to procure a medal in the men’s synchronised diving event this summer, Twitter user ‘Rileyy_69’ took to his account to blast the 18-year-old, claiming that he had let his late father down – a man who tragically lost his battle with cancer a year previously.
The spiteful character of these tweets is undeniable, yet some found his subsequent arrest profoundly more unsettling. Perhaps ‘Rileyy_69’ was more deserving of social rather than legal condemnation; a fate that certainly befell him judging by the overwhelming support Daley received on Twitter in response to this vile message. ‘Rileyy_69’ was later released with a harassment warning; a statement from the Dorset Police claimed that the arrest was made on the grounds of ‘malicious communication’. It is not surprising, however, that when stripped of the intimacy of physical identity, it was much easier for ‘Rileyy_69’ to behave spitefully. Facebook and Twitter apparently perform two simultaneous functions – to enable the individual to express opinions and ideas to a large audience while also creating the illusion that they are protected by their computer screen. Yet for ‘Rileyy_69’ the latter was clearly not the case.
Many are asking whether there has been an unofficial reappraisal of the boundaries of free speech. Thanks to social networking, practically everyone has access to a public platform where they can make their voices heard. Gone are the days when only politicians and celebrities had access to this – individuals hardwired with their own censorship mechanism, designed to protect their delicate careers from imploding under the strain of a car-crash comment.
More recently, YouTube has become a focal point for Muslims around the world after a 14 minute trailer for a low-budget movie entitled ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ was uploaded. The trailer depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a man of loose morals, who in one scene even sanctions the sexual abuse of children.
The controversial video was filmed in the US and produced by the California-based Egyptian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, meaning that much of the resulting unrest has been directed against the US: American flags were burnt in Pakistan while Chris Stephens, the US ambassador in Libya, was murdered along with three other diplomats in an attack on his Benghazi consulate. It is debateable whether the demonstrations were fuelled more by the content of the video or by inherent anti-American sentiment in the region, but it nonetheless provided an opportunity to take the lives of innocents.
Nakoula cannot easily claim ignorance. The Danish cartoon fiasco in 2005 and the Fatwa placed on author Salman Rushdie in 1989 were past indications that blasphemous depictions of the Prophet, even by a non-Muslim, would inevitably be met with violence. The US Government asked for the video’s removal from the website but Google, the parent company of YouTube, declined. Freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right in the US and any attempt to override Google’s decision and ban the video would smack of hypocrisy.
Yet, when Western attitudes towards free speech encroach upon the religious values of others to the point where Westerners become targets, should we exercise some form of self-censorship, if for no other purpose than self-preservation? Some would argue that doing so would justify mindless violence and gives in to radical Islamism, yet try telling this to the families of those who have died in the demonstrations. To them, a direct line can be drawn from the free speech exercised by Nakoula to the tragic loss of their loved one.
The far-reaching and sometimes devastating consequences of social media should prompt us to call into question how liberal we can afford to be with our words in an age where they can impact the lives of millions.