UKIP, Twitter and the death of debate online

Earlier this week, it was reported that Michael Abberton, a Green Party member and blogger, was visited by two policemen who advised him to delete tweets he had posted about the UK Independence Party (UKIP). This unwelcome visit came after complaints were made by one of the party’s members. Abberton was told by the police that he was being visited in relation to a tweet he posted ‘fact checking’ UKIP’s ten-point party policy. (He’s not a big fan, going so far as to call Nigel Farage’s party ‘the “acceptable” face of neo-Nazism in the UK’.)

According to Abberton’s blog post about the incident, he was told by the police that he hadn’t broken any laws and that no charges were being brought against him – he claims that the police even admitted at one point that it really wasn’t even a police matter. Quite rightly, he felt a bit peeved by this intrusion: ‘Is it not a matter for concern that a political party would seek to silence dissent and debate in such a manner?’, he wrote.

While this all may be a bit rich coming from a Green Party member, given their recent call for a ‘clear-out’ of ‘climate-change deniers’, this incident represents a troubling trend in the world of political discussion today. The UKIP councillor complained, essentially, because he found someone disagreeing with his views offensive. What’s more, this thin-skinned unwillingness to engage in any serious debate now permeates social media. Indeed, UKIP members themselves have been hounded out of their own party for causing outrage when they took to Twitter to express their own daft views. While many believed the internet would be the saviour of democracy, it appears to have become a tool for surveillance and the closing down of debate.

The value of free speech is being eroded by the obligation to watch what we say and who we say it to. Therapeutic notions about the ‘harm’ that words cause are undermining the democratic cause, as debate is closed down and people are unwilling to engage in ideas on a serious and adult level. It’s clear what should have happened in this case: the police should have told the UKIP member to get lost, get over it, and, if he didn’t like it, challenge Abberton’s arguments. But the same goes for crotchety greens, UKIP haters, and anyone else who thinks they have the right to shut down debate on the basis of their own hurt feelings.

Christopher Beckett is studying for a masters in sociology at the University of Liverpool and is an organiser for the Liverpool Salon.

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