The Guardian has got its knickers in a twist over the Interwebs. Being a newspaper, it cannot resist the temptation to invoke biblical parallels from the pulpit: "In the beginning was the web. A playful, creative and open space, where anyone could connect, and every assumption, every hierarchy, could be challenged. ... but along with online camaraderie, the vituperative modes of interaction took hold: bullying, shaming and intimidation". From Eden despoiled we segue to original sin: "For some, it is simply human nature, the inescapably nasty and brutish ways of the world finding electronic expression. Others ... point to problems with the rules of engagement, with some suggesting that the freedom to invent a new identity is, like Plato’s ring of Gyges, taken as a freedom to slip free of all morality". You can see where this is going: freedom (like everything) has a price, rights entail responsibilities, and can we have your home address for marketing purposes?
You'll also note the chronological shift from the legends of ancient Israel to the philosophy of ancient Greece, which reminds us that history is progressive: "Physical chastisement of women at home was once unexceptional, racist name-calling 'a bit of fun', and bottom-pinching at work an everyday occurrence, something to be endured, because it was not going to change. Slowly but surely, though, time was called on such shoulder-shrugging indifference, and the world changed". You don't have to subscribe to the optimism of Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature to recognise that in aggregate we live in a more tolerant and considerate world, which means that offensive social media ought to be welcomed on the principle that sticks and stones are better than broken bones. But liberals are not libertarians. Freedom is conditional and easily corrupted by the persistence of atavistic evil: "much of this new online abuse works to reinforce ancient prejudices". The work of progress is never done.
The media obsession with "hyper-terrorism" is being used by authoritarians to advance mass surveillance and the conditional suspension of rights. Likewise, the reported rise in antisemitism and misogyny on the left is being used by liberals to differentiate themselves and fill the policy vacuum caused by the redundancy of Third Way politics. The right have occupied the fiscally-conservative / socially-liberal space, while the "new new" left have revived social democracy. Centrists are left with the narrow terrain of identity politics in which ontological security has given way to full-blown paranoia: trolls to the left of me, trolls to the right. However tragic terrorism may be for an individual, or however horrible online abuse may be for its target, our current hysteria is disproportionate and obscures the real agenda: "Are there changes to the law that could ensure better protection and policing of this shared space? What responsibility lies with platforms like Facebook; and then, what responsibility lies with publishers such as the Guardian?" This is not just a plea to restore the social gatekeeper role of newspapers but an insistence that businesses are central to policing social rules. Neoliberalism isn't dead yet.
Humanity is becoming more tolerant and considerate in large part because of increased communication, but this process is messy. All new media witness initial abuse, simply because opportunity initially exceeds learned self-control (when I got my first cassette tape recorder in the late-70s, I'm pretty sure my test recording went something like "fuck, shit, bollocks, cunt"). This is followed by the gradual imposition of new norms of behaviour. The media can be thought of as a spotlight (or window, a la Overton) that reveals subjects and language deemed acceptable and appropriate to public discourse. Social media has expanded the area of illumination, but it has not created attitudes that previously didn't exist. The Guardian initiative is part of the process of formalising the boundaries of this new area, and as such it is following tradition in justifying censorship through the avoidance of damage. Where once we would ban seditious pamphlets for fear of public disorder and the destruction of property, now we privilege the mental health and right to be heard of the victimised lesbian columnist while marginalising the mental distress and limited voice of the angy white male troll.
Even those who welcome the horizontal potential of new media are susceptible to this moralism. Thus Paul Mason shies away from censorship but advocates education, which is just a progressive form of discrimination (i.e. reject that, embrace this): "Wherever the internet is not censored it is awash with anger, stereotypes and prejudice. ... ultimately what defeats genocidal racism is solidarity backed by logic, education and struggle. The left’s most effective weapon against antisemitism in the mid-20th century was the ability to trace the evils of the world to their true root cause: injustice, privilege and national oppression generated by an economic model designed to make the rich richer". This is still censorship because it constructs a hierarchy of value: antisemitism is not a legitimate way of understanding and negotiating the world while materialism and class struggle is. I might agree, but the point is that free speech entails the freedom to be wrong.
Mason's concern is ultimately one of seriousness: a fear that the masses are too easily distracted and misled to address what really matters. At root this is an old religious prejudice, filtered through the Enlightenment, that suspects the mob of a predilection for disorder and vice: "a culture that sees offensive speech as a source of amusement and the ability to publish racist insults as a human right". Even when the criticism is directed at those who profit from this - the modern equivalent of the moneylenders in the temple - the implicit criticism is of the weakness of the people. Thus Peter Preston: "So the bleak charge is that, for all its bright promise and sundry achievements, the net we have and the net we’ll get swamp tolerance, obliterate thinking time, fill minds with instant gratification and hatred. They play a role in undermining traditional party structures. They let demagogues loose. And they do it in a manufactured quest for clicks and cash" (just as an aside, how did this grammar-mangler ever get to edit a newspaper?)
Despite the oft-repeated claims, the Internet is not awash with hate-speech and profanity. Most people's Facebook timelines are dominated by the mundane and the silly. There are more cat videos than Daesh snuff movies because there are more cat-lovers in the world than terrorists, there are probably more Downfall parodies than genuine Nazis, and what has multiplied most are adverts, which is why the unit cost of advertising has fallen. Up till the late-80s, it was routine to hear misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks in casual conversation. Our sensitivity is quite recent. If you went in to a public bar, a typical topic of conversation would be that cunt they've got at right-back. The coverage of football by newspapers, whether broadsheet or tabloid, was narrow and unimaginative, and only distinguished from the bar in its avoidance of swearing. The growth of football fanzines was driven by a desire to broaden and improve discussion in all dimensions. This included the denigration of various people, but taking the piss out of Ken Bates for his Thatcherite conceits was actually a step up on simply dismissing a right-back out of hand.
It has become convenient for journalists to claim that the decline in trust in institutions, notably newspapers and TV news, but also in politics as a chief subject of "respectable" media, reflects the impact of the Internet, despite ample evidence that declining trust in institutions is a long-term trend that starts in the 1970s and reflects the neoliberal shift from collectivism to individualism: "The beginning of political and economic liberalism is distrust" (in the sense of a wariness about state intervention). This points to a division in the meaning of "trust" between social relations (respect and authority) and a market signal (trustworthiness as a commodity). The problem for traditional media is that structural changes - the proliferation of channels, free content and the amplification of social media - have diluted the former and made the latter more clamorous. That's a problem for them but it doesn't mean that the Internet is eroding democracy. If anywhere, the finger of blame should be pointed towards neoliberalism.
Racist, homophobic and misogynistic trolling is clearly reactionary, reflecting changes in the workplace and society that make groups that once enjoyed relative privilege, such as working and middle-class white men, defensive and resentful. But this means that it marks a defeat, not a triumph. Indeed, the highpoint of trolling may well have already passed. In this light it is worth considering porn. The normalisation of hardcore pornography (i.e. images of acts that are themselves legal) by the Internet has not led to the collapse of society, essentially because it reinforced an existing trend towards more liberal attitudes to sex that arose from wider social changes. The point is not that trolling will be normalised and even more prevalent, but that baiting someone over their race or gender will eventually become as passé as being censorious about their legal sexual interests. This won't happen overnight, because gender and race prejudice are hardwired into our socio-economic system, but it will happen in time.
The recently-reported story of John Whittingdale's relationship with a woman who worked as a prostitute is illuminating in this regard. Formerly as chair of the Commons select committee on the media and now as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Whittingdale has been consistently supportive of the press and reluctant to implement the full recommendations of the Leveson inquiry. The decision by four papers to spike a story that was otherwise catnip (Norman Lamont got it in the neck just for having a dominatrix as a tenant) looks like a supportive gesture towards an ally. This highlights the discrimination of the press - willing to attack perceived enemies while indulging their friends - which is the real political issue. What was incidentally revealing was the lack of comment about Whittingdale's unashamed use of match.com, indicating the degree to which "hook-up" apps have become normalised. We've come a long way from the swimming pool at Cliveden.