Free speech on Facebook? Think again
The prosecution of a teenager for sounding off about British soldiers on Facebook should be of concern to us all.
‘He didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother.’
Talk about the understatement of the year. This wasn’t a teacher explaining to concerned parents about why their kid received low grades in a French GCSE oral exam. It was instead the explanation given by a West Yorkshire Police spokesman as to why 19-year-old Azhar Ahmed was arrested and charged for a ‘racially aggravated public-order offence’ after posting an angry rant on Facebook.
Ahmed is due to appear in court next Tuesday, where the precise reason for the charge will be made clear. But, from the content of his Facebook post, many are baffled as to how his offence was ‘racially aggravated’. Referring to the media attention received by the six British soldiers killed while on duty in Afghanistan earlier in this month, Ahmed wrote: ‘People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed… The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban, not innocent harmful family’s. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soldiers grave & wish him hell because that’s where he is going.’
Abusive? Definitely. Badly put? Erm, yes. But if that’s a crime, you’d have to arrest most of us using Facebook. And since when did not putting your point across well become a criminal offence? It is far from clear how the comment made by Ahmed in any way constitutes racism. He is evidently aiming his messily worded vitriol at soldiers whose actions have brought about the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan. How exactly does that make him a racist?
Sure, Ahmed has brown skin and the British solders that were killed were white. But if any angry dialogue aimed at a person with a different colour skin can now be interpreted by the cops as a ‘racially aggravated offence’, then swathes of daily interactions could be deemed racist. Indeed, if this is the only evidence backing up the charge, then it seems that the police may well be projecting their own racial prejudices on to the case.
This bizarre case shows the extent to which the authorities are now desperate to clamp down on and regulate even the most banal expressions of anger on social-networking sites. Indeed, not satisfied with the range of ways Facebook and other social-media sites allow users to report comments, a new police initiative to encourage people to snitch on others online has been set up this week.
The Metropolitan Police’s True Vision site is designed to make it as easy as possible to snitch on someone saying something you dislike. That said, the site does explain, rather apologetically, ‘While you may come across a lot of material on the internet that offends you, very little of it is actually illegal’ before adding that ‘The police… do not have powers to control offensive thoughts or words unless they are shared illegally’.
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If, however, you are offended by online chatter about race, religion or sexual orientation, then the police can step in to control it. All you need to do is fill in a short online form answering questions about the name of the site, who made the comments, and the frankly weird, ‘Why do you perceive this to be motivated by hatred rather than a legitimately held view which is different to your own?’
Worryingly, some defenders of Ahmed have been tweeting and posting links to the True Vision site in an attempt to retaliate. Rather than defend free speech for everyone, they are content instead to fight fire with fire and are singling out any British Army soldiers who have posted unsavoury comments criticising Ahmed. As one online commenter put it of a particular solidier’s comments, ‘I have reported [the] post via https://secure.met.police.uk/hatecrime_internet/ and urge you to do the same. The amount of racism/general hate speech on social media sites such as Facebook is astounding, and like ASDA says, every little helps!’ Another says: ‘You might like to ask yourself why this overtly threatening and racist comment on the case is still on Facebook nearly 24hrs after it was posted’, before posting a link to the offending content. If Ahmed’s comments are punishable as hate speech, then these are too, goes the censorious logic.
Contrary to claims by some that Muslims are being unfairly singled out by having their free speech curtailed, the British state is in fact remarkably indiscriminate about whose ‘hate’ speech it curtails. The English Defence League (EDL), for example, has seen as many attacks on its freedom of speech as Muslim campaign groups, with almost 200 EDL members being pre-emptively arrested during Armistice Day in London last year. This was following Occupy London protesters’ decision to send screengrabs of Facebook comments they felt threatened by to the police. And late last year, a number of young white twentysomethings were sentenced for merely suggesting on Facebook that their ‘friends’ should take part in the riots that took place across England last August. The list goes on.
Even though the state appears determined to invade every aspect of the social-networking sphere, its regulating hand is often superfluous. Through the use of Twittermobs and Facebook campaigns, online campaigners frequently find ways to ensure that ‘offending’ people lose their jobs, or become involved in a humiliating media scandal without even needing to call in the cops. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out previously, ‘far from being a bastion of freedom of speech, Twitter can be a remarkably conformist, elitist and intolerant arena’.
The charging of Ahmed for his Facebook comments is not exceptional. Rather, it is yet another instance of the increasing crackdown on free speech online. As worrying as the authorities’ obsession is with regulating our thoughts and words on the web, the willingness with which some take up the police’s offer to become copper’s narks, or campaign to silence offenders themselves, is perhaps more worrying. No one is exempt from this army of censorious snitches. If you still thought you had free speech on Facebook, you had better think again.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes. He will be speaking at the Liberty League Freedom Forum, taking place between March 30 - April 1 2012.