From Hate Speech to Cyber-bullying: Is social Media too toxic?

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Institute of IdeasBattle of Ideas 2016 in London. It was brilliant; as an aspiring journalist and a lover of debating, it was a wonderful way to spend the weekend with my mum and it’s definitely given me a lot to think about in my day to day life (ie. the ‘Cultural Appropriation‘ debate) and I can hopefully use some ideas in a politics essay one day.  I hope I can go next year and I hope you will, too.

The last debate we attended was one my mum was actually a panelist for. Not that I’m biased, but my mum did excellently. It was a debate about the restrictions of what is allowed to be said on social media and incorporated into that is the dilemma of how far does ‘free speech’ go? Half the panelists and most of the audience appeared to be on the side that freedom of speech should have no restrictions. Logically, yes, if you remove one aspect of freedom of speech, you go down a slippery slope towards total removal of freedom of speech. I believe this is not the case, however.

Now, call me part of the ‘snowflake generation’*, but I do believe that freedom of speech is our right but it is not our right to intentionally and emotionally abuse people. It appeared to me that the majority of the audience believe that words cannot hurt.  As my mum quite rightly showed in her introduction, with Childline reporting 11,000 of their counselling sessions being related to online issues, yes they can.  As an audience member reminded us, it is children who make up the vast majority of people on social media, we adults (oh God, I’m now legally an adult *gulp*) have to set the example and look after our children.

The very good Chair, Ella Whelan, kept bringing the topic back to ‘Is it OK to send rape/death threats’ but the audience, in general, weren’t interested.  I am.  I didn’t get to ask my question about rape threats, so here it is.

I have lost count of the number of friends, male and female alike, who have been sexually abused in some way. My neighbour routinely tells me of the girls in her Year 8 class (that’s 12/13 year olds!) being sexually abused by their boy classmates (again, that’s 12/13 year olds!). When you allow  rape threats to be posted, defending them by crying ‘free speech’ or “it’s in the heat of the moment” you incite rape culture. What you are telling young girls is that rape is just part of being a girl and you continue to silence the millions of worldwide victims. Not only this, but it tells young boys that they are able to rape – or threaten to rape – girls, with no consequences. This is particularly evident from Trump’s recent “grab her by the pussy” comments. Rape culture is a serious issue the ‘snowflake’ generation face. Young women in particular, are already terrified of being raped; allowing it to be spread on social media heightens our fear.

My specific question would be: How would you feel if you got threatened with rape? Knowing it is often the survivors who suffer the consequences (see the Brock Turner case), would you shrug and say ‘freedom of speech’? More importantly, how would you feel if these threats were aimed at your son, or more likely, your daughter? Would you tell your young, now terrified and fearful daughter, ‘It’s freedom of speech! They’re allowed to say that and it doesn’t mean anything. Don’t worry about it, sweetheart.’ Then patronisingly pat her on the back and tell her to do her homework?

I would hope any parent would have the decency to get in contact with the social media site, or contact the police if the issue persisted from one user, to get the abuser removed. I am focusing on girls as it is mainly an issue girls face, but I do sincerely acknowledge that male rape victims are a serious issue which needs addressing.

My position on this debate is simple: I relish freedom of speech, people have fought long and hard for it; I will not spit and dance on the graves of those who have lost their lives in the fight for freedom of speech. Equally, however, I will not spit and dance on the graves of the millions of rape victims who have lost or taken their lives as a consequence, or even those who have taken their lives due to serious and persistent cyber-bullying. We cannot allow for adults to write such abuse – what message does that send to kids, the majority of people on social media?

Freedom of speech is a right, and I intend to keep that. Followers of my blog will know that I will stand up for my rights, but that also means that we cannot eliminate the rights of others. In this instance, you are no longer exercising your right to freedom of speech and are instead encroaching on their right to feel safe. Please post/tweet with respect.


*I don’t even want to look it up. From what was being said about us ‘snowflakes’ during the debate, I have decided it is what grumpy, middle-aged, white men who like to say anything downright offensive, inappropriate and usually illegal, call people like me: young, liberal and know the difference between freedom of speech and hate speech. They feel we are too ‘sensitive’ when in actual fact, they can’t accept that what they are saying is deeply hurtful to sections of society and we won’t take it anymore. There is a thick line between comedy, poking fun at everyone, and not being able to construct a well reasoned argument so resorting to offence, attacking a specific section of society.