The troll-hunters’ war on liberty
The fuss over online ‘trolling’ has always had all the trappings of a classic moral panic. A handful of troubled, drink-sodden saddos have been elevated in the popular imagination to the status of devils in electronic form – an army of dark and deviant internet-poisoners whose obscenities pose a threat, not only to the online space, but to the moral fabric of society itself.
But the handwringing over the scourge of the troll has set in motion a scandal of its own – one that needs no exaggeration. Last year, 1,209 trolls were found guilty under Section 127 of the Communications Act (2003) – an increase of 18 per cent on the 2013 figures. Of those convicted, 155 were jailed, for an average of over two months. Convictions under the Malicious Communications Act (1988) also climbed to 694 – the highest in a decade.
While troll-hunting campaigners have often insisted that trolling is ‘not a free-speech issue’, because what many of them engage in is tantamount to unlawful threats, this is clearly not the whole story. In one of the most high-profile cases, John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley were jailed under the Communications Act for eight and 12 weeks respectively last year, ostensibly for sending death and rape threats to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. Of course, expressions of intent to cause unlawful harm are, rightfully, not classed as an exercise of freedom of speech. But the problem is that it is not simply threats that are being criminalised here.
The Communications Act does not legislate against threats. Rather, it criminalises messages which are ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’. It punishes speech that is nasty, sick and shocking – not speech that causes fear for life and limb. And, while the Malicious Communications Act does make provisions for threats, it has also been used to clamp down on mere offensiveness. After the murder of teacher Ann Maguire at the hands of a pupil in 2014, for instance, Jake Newsome, a 21-year-old from Leeds, was jailed for posting the following on his Facebook page: ‘I’m glad that teacher got stabbed up, feel sorry for the kid… he shoulda [sic] pissed on her too.’ Sure, commentary doesn’t get much more sickening than that. But Newsome issued no threat; his only crime was to give expression to his twisted thoughts.
So, inevitably, the panic over trolling, and the accompanying demands that the state Do Something, have paved the way for a large-scale clampdown, not on criminal threats, but on ‘gross offensiveness’. And what, precisely, should count as ‘grossly offensive’? Well, that’s up to the judges. Unless we defend trolls’ right to be vile, it won’t be long before it isn’t only the Nimmos and the Newsomes of this world finding themselves in front of a judge.
Blair Spowart is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an organiser for the Down With Campus Censorship! campaign.