An extraordinary announcement was made this week by Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing. The announcement should have come as a shock – sadly, however, it did not.
Marshall told the BBC’s Law in Action programme that around half the complaints received by front-line police now relate to online activity. ‘As people have moved their shopping online, they’ve also moved their insults’, he explained, creating ‘a real problem for people working on the frontline of policing’. Marshall specified that ‘in a typical day, where perhaps [police officers] deal with a dozen calls, they might expect that at least half of them may be related to social media’. He also indicated – in a detail that could have come from an episode of Brass Eye - that many of these complaints relate to entirely trivial behaviour, such as people being ‘unfriended’ on Facebook.
So why is this unsurprising, however ludicrous? Because it is the inevitable result of our increasingly punitive approach to internet speech. Where people grow accustomed to think of insults on social media as criminal, they are encouraged to believe they have a right to absolute serenity the moment they go online. We’re used to reading about people calling emergency services about, say, a lack of sprinkles on their ice-cream. We are now fostering a generation of people convinced that it’s the job of the police to mediate what Marshall calls ‘every bit of nonsense and disagreement’ on the internet. The more draconian our response to the latest dolt being unpleasant on social media, the more police time will be taken up by attempts to use the coercive power of the state to avenge online friction.
According to Marshall, there are 6,000 police officers currently being trained to deal with anti-social behaviour online. Marshall warns that many are still trying to understand the point at which insults on social media become crimes. Maybe I can help them with that: they don’t. To conflate credible threats of violence on the one hand, with trifling insults on the other, is absurd. The purpose of the police can never be to ensure complete interpersonal harmony in a country of 62million people. The notion is preposterous in concept, and any attempt at its execution will be dystopian in effect. Even if we could, would we really want to spend our days in some insipid echo-chamber of perpetual accord?
spiked will continue to make the principled case for unfettered free speech, for as long as it remains diminished. But for those who are implacably unmoved by the argument from principle in favour of free speech, perhaps this development shows the farcical impracticability of state attempts to intervene in online squabbles. The giving and taking of offence is an indelible feature of human life. Its removal, were it even possible, would reduce life to a monochrome trudge of uniformity.