Wednesday, January 28, 2015 

Trapped in the echo chamber.

At times, I wonder just how it was newspapers filled their pages when they couldn't dedicate multiple anguished pieces to either actors making a poor choice of word, or alleged celebrities Twitter-shaming litterers.  Then you remember there was never a halcyon period for newspapers, regardless of what anyone will tell you: the tabloids were always full of celebrity bilge, including Hugh Cudlipp's patrician Mirror.  As for the broadsheets, they were in the main drier than downtown Jeddah on a Saturday night.  Not for nothing was the ghastly but at least readable Express the world's biggest seller for a time.

Apparently then I must defend Katie Price's right to party to claim disability benefits for her son.  First they came for one of the most loathsome personalities of recent times, and so forth.  Alternatively, I could let her get on with it, as I'm sure dear old Jordan can look after herself, surely?  Much like Benedict Bandersnatch (that is his name, isn't it?) no doubt instantly regretted saying coloured, without it being necessary for writers to assume he couldn't have much contact with black actors if he was going around doing so.  As for Kirstie Allsopp, well, as the personification of just about everything that would quickly send me completely and utterly fucking doolally, if she wants to be so petty as to put a litterer's number plate online, does it really need further comment?

Of course it does.  And of course, it takes two or indeed dozens of sad acts for these mini-ripples to get anywhere in the first place.  Reading Jon Ronson's interview with Adam Curtis, which quickly digresses onto the topic of Ronson's upcoming book on those who've found themselves at the centre of online storms, it's easy to forget these incidents would have felt that much less serious had the mainstream media decided not to join in the stupidity.

Personally, despite everything that's come since, I reckon the apogee was reached in the days after that woman put that cat in that bin.  Why put the CCTV online in the first place?  I love animals as much as the next carnivore, but let's face it, far worse than spending a night in a bin is going to happen to most cats through their own ahem, curiosity.  Why demand answers as to why she put it in the bin?  Did it matter?  Would any answer suffice?  She quite possibly had a terrible day, but rather than stroke the cat as most of us would have and probably felt just that little better, she put it in the bin.  Or perhaps she does just hate cats.  Either way, the why was irrelevant.  She will now and forever more be the cat bin lady.  Which could be preferable to being known as a cat lady when you think about it, who knows.

As you'll probably know by now, my own views on social media are roughly akin to both Ronson and Curtis's.  Yes, it can all too easily become an echo chamber, but then most of us don't like having our thoughts and opinions challenged in the first place.  Hence we buy that paper, we read that website, we turn our noses up at their rivals and so on.  Far more pernicious to me at least is not the vehemence with which a transgression against something might be pursued, so much as the effect it's had on activism.  On the one hand it's turbo-charged many campaigns, had a major role in the Arab spring, etc.  On the other, as Curtis points out, what is there to show for the vast majority of hashtag battles?  Not just the obvious examples for mocking, such as #bringbackourgirls or #kony2012, but what about #occupy?  Apart from giving us the 99%/1% identifiers, what did it really change, and is that perhaps not directly connected to the lack of real leadership there so often is behind such Twitter co-ordinated protests?

Curtis doesn't get everything right.  His remark on how in "ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s" is just a little behind the times, considering how there have been subcultures online almost exactly as he describes since the late 90s, and you could probably identify similar groupings on BBSes if you so wished.  It's also something of a stretch to point towards "consumer journalism" being a recent thing - Murdoch's Sun was precisely that, long before accusations of dumbing down were bandied about, while the painting of the world as black and white is old as newspapers themselves.

What's so odd and defies explanation is just how quickly the "shaming" aspect of social media has become accepted.  Why should anyone care what a cricketer thinks about people on minimum wage for instance, and why does someone else known for their opinions on Twitter feel the need to dedicate an entire piece to it?  It tells us precisely nothing wider about ourselves, just as Emma West's rant about immigration didn't.  The answer maybe is that rather than giving everyone a voice, what social media has really done is inflate egos yet further and little else, empowering not individuals, but individualism.  This hasn't just happened to the Stuart Broads, the Allsopps, or anyone else you might care to mention, but also those whose reaction to the Sun trolling everyone last week over page 3 was to stamp their feet rather than reflect they had been too quick to assume victory.  More prosaically, another explanation is the encouragement if not active compulsion there now is to share, regardless of whether it's something that should be heard or deserves to be.  When rubbed against not the right to freedom of speech but, hilariously, the "freedom to be offended" as the headline writing sub on Jessica Valenti's latest we're putting an end to every sort of ism through making everyone check their privilege piece put it, increasingly pointless battles are the inevitable result.

As ever, most of the criticisms directed against others can be pointed directly back at myself.  Why moan about people moaning about inconsequential things?  Hasn't writing this crap for the last nigh-on 10 years been all about boosting your ego too?  Who gives a fig what you think about anything?  To which the only answer is: curses, foiled again.

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Monday, October 20, 2014 

Poisoning national life? That'll be two years.

Gosh, was it really but two weeks ago some of the internet world was up in arms over the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland, aka Sweepyface, aka one of those meanies still obsessed with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and still insisting her parents might have had something to do with it, or at least bear some responsibility?  Unpopular opinions certainly, but not illegal, and probably not really deserving of a doorstepping from a Sky reporter.

How fast things move these days.  Just as we saw in the aftermath of the riots, when some judges took it upon themselves to hand down harsher sentences to those who didn't riot but suggested they might than to some of those who did, so now Chris Grayling promises the maximum sentence for "trolls" will be lengthened from the current six months to 2 years.  Anyone would have thought we don't have a prison system in crisis, one where the debate over whether Ched Evans should be allowed to play football again ought to have been delayed until he'd served the full 5 years he was given after being found guilty of rape, but no, space can always be found for those who "poison our national life".

Apparently Chloe Madeley was last week subjected to "online terrorism".  I say apparently as I really, truly, don't care enough to look any deeper.  One suspects the rape threats she received amounted to what they usually do, a handful of people, sometimes not even that, reaching for the most obvious weapon in their verbal arsenal, either sexual assault and/or death.  Back in the day, we called the people whose first response to getting bested in argument was to say the equivalent of "I'd beat u up m8" internet tough guys.  Because in the majority of examples, that's all they are: cocky and arrogant online but likely to shit themselves if someone took them up on the offer and arrived on their doorstep.

This isn't always the case, as #gamergate has (somewhat) demonstrated.  Madeley doesn't seem to have had her personal information posted online, as Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have.  #Gamergate has also now been going for two months, an incredibly long time by internet standards for a drama to still be developing.  For those who've missed the whole farrago up to now, in microcosm #gamergate is either one of two things: a crusade against corrupt videogame journalism, or a dying, backwards community trying desperately to keep its domain in aspic, without politics, especially left-wing politics and feminism, gaining a foothold.

As you might expect, in reality it's neither.  Both sides doth protest too much: despite how gaming journalists have tried to argue there was no truth behind the claims of corruption from Quinn's ex-boyfriend, who detailed how she had slept with journalists and others in the wider industry while still in a relationship with him, there has long been a problem with cronyism at best and outright corruption at worst in gaming media.  Rather than face up to the initial outcry following the spreading of Eron Gjoni's allegations, one of the first responses came in the shape of multiple news and review sites declaring the "gamer" label itself dead, all on the same day.  You know, exactly the sort of collusion and refusing to listen the old media used to indulge in and still does, albeit on a smaller scale than before.

Then again, you can't exactly blame them considering some of the abuse directed their way.  Think the trolling of Caroline Criado-Perez et al except multiplied many times over.  Nearly everyone with even a passing role has been "doxed", items really have been sent through the post, and so on.  It has also been to a certain extent orchestrated, one internet subculture organising for all out war on another.  Their enemy is "SJWs", social justice warriors, imposing their values and standards on others whether they like it or not, and anonymous most certainly does not like it.

You'd think being something of a left-winger, believing wholeheartedly in equality and so on I would be in alliance with those criticising games and gamers for their continued Neanderthal ways.  And I would be, if that first response hadn't been so woefully constructed, the backlash against the mere asking of questions so vehement.  The reason this has gone on so long without burning itself it out is precisely because those on the side of Quinn and Saarkesian have risen to the bait over and over and over, just as Criado-Perez and those supporting her did.  Moreover, just as the coverage of the banknote campaign and its aftermath made clear how journalists themselves ramped it up due to how they knew those involved, or indeed, how they were being targeted themselves, so any semblance of objectivity went almost immediately.  It's shone a light on the vulnerabilities and insecurities of both sides, highlighting groupthink and the way narratives are constructed in this extremely new media landscape.

There is of course no defence for threats, for "doxing" people, for scaring them to the extent they feel compelled to leave their homes.  Concerted, sustained trolling has to be tackled in some way, and if that means involving the authorities, so be it.  You don't have to be a cynic however to note it's only some victims the media cares for, and there are plenty of journalists who have never taken to their writing becoming so open to criticism.  We've already seen people imprisoned for making tasteless jokes, or given community service for daring to make angry political statements. Handing judges the power to impose longer sentences for going beyond what we consider the bounds of free speech, will, as it always does, encourage them to use it, just as publicity also makes them believe they have to set an example the next time a spotty herbert with a miserable life and a hateful online alter ego appears before them.  The only people who ever truly poison national life are those in positions of power, and the vast majority of keyboard denizens have none.

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Monday, October 06, 2014 

Who's responsible? You fucking are.

We don't so much as know how Brenda Leyland, aka Sweepyface, aka the woman confronted on camera by Martin Brunt but first named by the Mail over alleged "trolling" of the parents of Madeleine McCann, died.  Only the police have decided her passing in a hotel room is not suspicious.  We don't therefore know how she lived her life other than how she used her time online, tweeting slightly less than 5,000 times over the space of three years, nearly always using the #McCanns hashtag.  We do know she had a total of 172 followers.  We also know, at least if we're to believe the Mail, that her village home was "immaculately kept".

What is known is that last week the Sunday Times agreed to pay £55,000 in damages to the McCanns over a front page story which alleged they had deliberately hindered the search for Madeleine.  Gerry McCann wrote a piece about the settlement and media behaviour generally for the Guardian that was posted online Thursday night, and published in the paper the following morning.  By sheer coincidence it would seem, Sky News (independent of but owned by the same proprietor as the Sunday Times) broadcast its report on Sweepyface the same day, its online write-up appearing just less than an hour before the Guardian story on McCann's article.  The Sunday Times has a circulation of 844,000, most of whom presumably don't read the actual right-wing comic of a newspaper and instead focus on the lavish supplements.

Madeleine McCann is still missing.  Despite media hype earlier in the year, the digging up of wasteland in Praia da Luz, new photofits of new suspects, new alleged breakthroughs, and much continued belittling of and sneering at the initial Portuguese investigation, the Metropolitan police seem no closer to discovering what happened to her.  Her disappearance coincided with the rise of social media, the death of MySpace and take-up of Facebook.  Almost everything that happened the night she disappeared has been disputed, was disputed and still is disputed.  No one knew anything.  Just that a little girl was missing.  In lieu of facts, every fiction going has been discussed, was discussed, is still being discussed.  Apportion blame all you want, to the media, to the McCanns, to the trolls, to the police, to the person or persons whom abducted her.  It doesn't alter the fact that, you, the individual, meant to be powerful, meant to be able to make judgements instantaneously and indeed, encouraged to do so, don't and can't know what happened.  What else can you do but carry on in spite of that?  It isn't about you.  You've just been made to feel that it is.

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Monday, April 28, 2014 

The UKIPs: wait it out.

In a world of people who don't care what absolutely anyone talks about on Twitter, I would be fairly hardcore in my not giving a shit.  Compare me though to countless millions up and down the country, and I would actually be fairly soft in my convictions.  When then sections of the media search out anyone with a link, tenuous or otherwise, to the UKIPs, and discover, horror of horrors, that some have rather unpleasant views of the 140 character variety, and yet, and yet, the UKIPs support continues to grow, you would have thought it might have registered by now that your average UKIP supporter/sympathiser doesn't care what someone's said about Islam, or immigration.  If anything, if they've even heard about the controversy, it might make them more determined than ever to vote for the party.

People are not supporting the UKIPs for their specific policies, mainly because apart from getting out of the EU they don't have any, or at least none that would much appeal to those who have flocked to their anti-establishment banner.  Their bedrock of support is built around what you could call the angry, embittered older man vote, if that is you wanted to further disparage a perfectly legitimate view of the world.  I'd wager all of us have one or two acquaintances who fit the bill: generally personable, but never happier than when complaining about something or other, whether it be the miserable attitudes of others (oh irony), the appearance of the youth of the day, or say, immigration.  Most don't use overtly racist language and instead are merely xenophobic.  Regardless, any suggestion that what they're saying is unacceptable is just grist to the mill, and provokes accusations of attempting to impose political correctness or censorship rather than engage in debate, which is precisely why UKIP's support seems to be increasing rather than falling away.

Call it a loathing for the political class, a general malaise about what's happened in recent years at Westminster, or what was merely once angry, embittered apathy, it now appears transformed into something with a massive potential impact. It's built around grievances, some legitimate, others not, and unless you haven't noticed, grievances are pretty much all politics seems to be about of late.

It's also a world view which has been fed drip by drip by the tabloids, even if they for the most part eschew UKIP and Farage themselves.  Sunny in an otherwise well argued post says the media have ferociously attacked the party, which is only true in the sense they've mocked the candidates, went on about Godfrey Bloom and laughed at Nigel Farage's German wife being the very best candidate to work as his secretary.  When it comes to why the UKIPs look set to sweep the board come the 22nd of May, it's because they've done just as much as the party to push their overview.  We had months of scaremongering about millions of Romanians and Bulgarians coming here at 0:01 on New Year's Day (politicians from the main three parties also joined in, it must be said), and despite their failure to materialise, the damage was done.  On the front pages today is the story of a multiple murderer getting just less than £1,000 in compensation for negligible damage to some of his possessions, while inside you can guarantee there'll be at least one outrage owing to perceived political correctness or barmy EUrocrats.  This dislike of modern Britain hasn't just come about organically: much as it is down to a sense of inexorable, unchallenged change for the worse, it's been best articulated not by Farage or Nick Griffin but the Mail, Express and Sun.  It's no coincidence the UKIP's spin doctor is former Express hack Patrick O'Flynn.

As for how you tackle this insurgency, the answer might be to just wait.  At the moment much of the UKIP's momentum is based on the coverage they continue to get, despite not having a single MP.  Caroline Lucas and the Greens would kill for such attention.  Taking them on in argument is unlikely to work even if someone with more of an idea of how to do battle with Farage than Nick Clegg takes up the challenge, such is the level of mistrust, not to mention the strength of conviction many of their supporters have about where the country has gone wrong, things that simply aren't going to be reversed.  Farage's biggest worry should be if, after all the hype and thousands of words predicting a victory in the European elections, his party then fails to win the largest share of the vote.  Such a result would bode extremely ill for the general election, when the most realistic hope is to get Farage into parliament and do damage to both Labour and the Tories.  The UKIP's support is definitely more broad-based than the BNP's was, but that doesn't mitigate against a similar collapse should the expected breakthrough not materialise.  This obviously doesn't deal with the underlying reasons for why UKIP has surged, yet it might require its withering away before the big three can start the proper, vital conversation with the voters they've abandoned. 

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Thursday, January 23, 2014 

Collymore and Ulrika.

I think I've made my views on trolling and Twitter pretty much clear, and don't really feel the need to repeat them again now in light of Stan Collymore's complaints about the abuse he's received for a while and which ratcheted up again at the weekend.  It should surely be noted though that unlike Caroline Criado-Perez, Collymore is in the business of making controversial comment on football and is no doubt well remunerated for doing so.  He's also pretty good at it, being the best thing on Talksport by a very long way.

Credit must nonetheless be given to both the Sun and Ulrika Jonsson for deciding this would be the perfect moment to bring up how back in 1998 Collymore attacked her and according, to Jonsson, said he "would fucking kill her".  No doubt he did.  One is also reminded however of how Jonsson's chosen way of promoting her autobiography was to focus on the allegation she made in it that she had been sexually assaulted earlier in her career, without naming the person responsible.  This, inevitably, led to speculation as to who it was, with Matthew Wright inadvertently naming John Leslie.  Jonsson chose not to cooperate with the subsequent police investigation into Leslie, with the CPS later dropping a prosecution against him at the last minute.

If we're going to bring hypocrisy into it, perhaps we should also consider the consequences of being deliberately vague and then not being prepared to pursue a case once the name of the person has become public.  As Ian Hislop said at the time, his general understanding was that you made complaints about sexual assault to the police, not the media (obviously, if the police ignore or don't act on complaints, then it certainly is legitimate to go to the media, although whether our press will treat ordinary members of the public's complaints with the same level of concern as they did someone like Jonsson, unless the individual being accused is also a celebrity, remains to be seen).  11 years on from that, and Jonsson is complaining about another incident that also resulted in no charges being brought, which Collymore apologised profusely for at the time.

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Thursday, January 09, 2014 

Revisiting the Twitter hate machine.

There has been, shall we say, an interesting response to the convictions this week of two of those who abused Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter following her campaign for a woman to appear on a banknote.  At the time we were told repeatedly this was proof positive of how many women are treated when they dare to raise their voices in public for such causes, of the most vile misogyny, and how there needed to be a change in attitude by both social networks and the police to such incidents.  Some of us cautioned that the first two views especially seemed to ignore how trolling had developed, as well as how those who had previously been exposed as trolls tended to be rather pathetic individuals. Unlike political bloggers. Ahem.

Without saying the guilty pleas of John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley vindicate that stance, as it's evident that some of those behind the over 80 accounts who attacked Criado-Perez were motivated by little more than outright sexism, it doesn't exactly stand up the misogyny explanation either, something most of those commentating have curiously omitted from their write-ups. We shouldn't of course take the mitigating statements made by their solicitors completely at face value, but it doesn't surprise Nimmo was described as a pathetic friendless failure, whose only interaction with the outside world was to abuse public figures in an attempt to get online kudos.  Sorley meanwhile blamed her behaviour on both boredom and being drunk, the latter at least backed up by a string of convictions for being drunk and disorderly.

While you certainly can be a woman and a misogynist, Criado-Perez's explanation that our society is "so steeped in misogyny" that women joining in shouldn't be a surprise doesn't really cut it. Just as any ideology can blind you to far more prosaic explanations of behaviour, Criado-Perez's feminism seems to have stopped her from considering whether it might just be that Sorley is an immature person who's made some extremely bad decisions.  Going back through her tweets over the past six months, that certainly seems the more reasonable conclusion to draw.

Helen Lewis writes that the debate has been held back by how the abuse directed against Criado-Perez was so awful that it can't be quoted pre-watershed.  This seems a red herring: was the debate really held back?  I don't think it was; if anything, the response last July/August from the media was ridiculously over-the-top and misinformed precisely because those reporting on it were too closely linked to the people being abused.  I can more than empathise with Criado-Perez being deeply upset and changed by the nature of the worst of the abuse; a long, long time ago (we're talking over a decade ago) someone managed to find my address and threatened to come and beat me up, which even if extremely unlikely did cause me some worry.  No one deserves to be threatened in such an obscene way, yet they are just words, words delivered through a computer screen, and which are constructed precisely to garner such a reaction.  Feminists being threatened with rape or worse isn't instantly misogyny; it's pure trolling, the troll knowing that bringing rape into it is bound to result in a reaction.

Which is where I think so many have got it so wrong.  As Isabella Sorley tweeted, and I think we can take her word for it, "these people don't hate her, they are after a reaction and she is giving them one!"  The abuse went on and got worse precisely because it was bitten back against over and over, receiving such wide media attention.  Ignoring it completely obviously isn't an answer, but it's a better one than expecting either the police or Twitter to be capable of tracking down every individual who wrote something beyond the pale.  Wanting the police to investigate every instance as Criado-Perez seems to isn't just impossible, it would mean them also having to track down those who threaten racists, feminists who attack feminists, as well as those who tweet their disgust at the construct they've just witnessed on their TV screens.

Fundamentally, it does come back to the other point, the confusing of the internet you would like there to be with the one there actually is.  Some of those who took part in last summer's boycott were deeply shocked when they found that the part of the internet they occupied could be infiltrated by those from outside it.  Fact is that some users out there don't care for who you are, and are more than prepared to tell you about it.  Helen Lewis says we can't ignore what's happening and asks whether it will be enough to make us act, yet she doesn't suggest what we should do.  If that's because there is no real answer, and most of the suggestions as to how to deal with it either wouldn't work or would destroy fundamental online freedoms, as restricting anonymity would, then good.  If not, we either haven't learned anything, or simply don't want to.

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Monday, October 28, 2013 

Thoughts on the end of the liberal conspiracy.

Liberal Conspiracy is gone.  It's something that's clearly been approaching for a while, such has been the dwindling number of posts, but it's still rather sad.  My thanks go out to Sunny for considering my witterings to be worthy of occasionally featuring there, and I wish him luck in his future ventures.  This also seems as good a time as any for a brief interlude of introspection, so here we go.

Sunny pulling the plug on LC is indicative of where blogging has gone over the last couple of years, which is pretty much down the toilet.  Perhaps I just haven't kept up, but away from the group blogs it seems moribund.  A few are still going fairly strong, others aren't updated as regularly as before, while plenty have thrown in the towel.  Clearly, individual blogs can still grow exponentially, for which see Wings Over Scotland, it's just they need a well-defined niche.

I would say this, but for me the real explanation for the decline isn't the mainstream media coming late to the party and overtaking the amateurs, it's that most writers now spend their time on Twitter rather than blogging.  Each to their own and everything, I just don't like the format and way it inevitably leads to circle jerks, as well as the tendency it inspires in trying to one up those you disagree with, which leads absolutely nowhere.  It also seems to lead some to believe that Twitter, or rather their followers and those they follow are the internet, the culmination of which seemed to be the "boycott" of August.  I'd like to think blogging broadens rather than limits horizons, while social networking in general does the opposite.  Might just be me.

It may also be somewhat to do with how ghastly politics is and has been for the last couple of years.  People seem to have tuned out to the point where Russell Brand being his normal, half-berk half-idiot savant self inspires more comment than anything in months.  You can focus when the government of the day is doing one or two things that are spectacularly ill-advised and wrong; when the coalition seems determined to bugger things up on so many different levels, it tends to inspire apathy rather than opposition.  With so many struggling to make ends meet it also leaves you determined to make the most of the leisure time you have, and while I might be the kind of sad bastard who likes smashing out hundreds of words every day, plenty of others who might have started out before think better of it now.

All this said, I for one am still fairly happy to keep going on.  I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought of putting an end to Obsolete/septicisle or whatever stupid name this site has quite a few times down the years, but for one reason or another I've continued.  Why stop now that the "competition" is dwindling?  Let's give it till Christmas, at least.

(Thanks to everyone who does humour me.  And if you're still reading, thank you especially.)

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Thursday, August 08, 2013 

Save us from the trolls Dave!

There is growing pressure on social networking sites to do something about something tonight, as politicians and newspapers alike blame them for every single problem in the world today.

The prime minister David Cameron led the way, urging everyone to boycott until it stopped working as any sort of service.  Speaking to Sky News, Cameron said: "These people have got to step up to the chicken basket and show some responsibility.  Simply allowing users of the site to block anonymous messages isn't good enough.  If someone makes nuisance phone calls, we obviously don't hold the caller responsible; we blame BT for allowing the call through in the first place, even if they have so-called call blocking available.  The same goes for the postal service.  If a mail bomb slips through the net and it kills someone, then obviously the postman who delivered it should be held accountable.  It's just common sense."

Expanding on his theme, Cameron continued: "Now while it's true that I hadn't heard of this website until yesterday, that shouldn't stop me from talking about something I know absolutely nothing about.  I really do encourage a boycott, as I've also been told that the one organised by the delightful Caitlin Moran on Twitter was such a huge success last Sunday, at least until the new Doctor Who was announced.  If we stop using these sites, there's absolutely no chance whatsoever that people will simply move elsewhere, or that bullies will strike offline rather than online.  We must drain this eco-system of hate."

The tabloids meanwhile have called for more meaningful action.  Both the Sun and Daily Mail have demanded that be banned, once again demonstrating their profound understanding of how the internet works.  Neither paper has any truck with bullies, as the comments section on the Mail website regularly demonstrates, regarded universally as a haven of informed, reasonable debate.  Likewise, columnists Richard Littlejohn and Jan Moir would never dream of writing about minorities in a prejudiced or inflammatory style.  As for the Sun, only those with extremely long memories can recall that during its campaign for Baby Peter the social workers involved with his case were urged to kill themselves by those commenting online, something that might cause a few regrets considering that two of the paper's journalists charged in connection with Operation Elveden have since had their own mental health problems.

We asked a random nerd slamming away at a keyboard for his take on these events.  "It's all a bit knee jerk, isn't it?  For a start, we don't know exactly why these four young people took their own lives.  Were they just being bullied on, or were they being bullied offline as well?  Did they have other relationship problems, or had any relatives or friends recently been ill or died?  I've had depression myself, and I find it difficult to believe that it was just bullying online that led them to take such a drastic step.  It could have been the trigger, or the last straw certainly, but we can't just blame a website without knowing the full facts, and you would have thought anti-bullying and children's campaigners would know that."

"Besides, why is it that parental responsibility seems such a foreign concept when it comes to the internet?  Yes, it's difficult if you don't understand the technology and the slang, and when you can't have complete control due to almost every device now having net access, but clearly you have to talk with your kids about the sites they use and let them know they can always come to you if they don't feel safe.  It's no use blaming a service if you don't use the privacy settings it has available.  Those truly responsible here are the pathetic little shits who think it's hilarious to tell 14-year-old girls they're fat and ugly and should die. How about we go after the messengers rather than the message provider?"

"As for the tabloids, could you possibly tell it's the silly season? Any passing frenzy will do, even if it's likely that the internet as a whole helps those who feel excluded in real life far more than it harms those already vulnerable (just look at the It Gets Better campaign). They're also looking for anything to distract from their own far from honourable record when it comes to treating those who come to their attention with respect, especially as argument continues over the royal charter to establish the new press regulator."

A reward (a wine gum and a can of cream soda) is being offered for any information that leads to the tracking down of a Labour shadow minister.

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Monday, August 05, 2013 

The epitome of modern self-absorption.

Right, can we cut the crap now?  This Twitter nonsense has gone on for far, far, too longThe trolling of Caroline Criado-Perez et al has almost nothing to do with feminism, or misogyny. What it does have to do with is a internet subculture that has been there for years, and has become most known thanks to the exploits of Anonymous, but most certainly did not originate with 4chan, or even the Something Awful forums.  Once upon a time, websites and their forums got "raided". Sometimes this happened justifiably, more often on a whim or on the basis of a deemed insult.  In essence, what would happen is that message boards would be flooded, goatse and plenty of other gross pictures would be posted, and a bad time would be had by members of the specific community.  As time has gone by, the targets have switched from being just forums to online games, and yes, social networking profiles.

From here, it's easy to understand how Anonymous broke through, although it's always surprised me that for the most part the main Anonymous grouping has had broadly left-wing political aims, as it always seemed to be the libertarians that shouted the loudest on the sites where its support sprung from.  Nonetheless, the potential has always been there for a similar grouping to emerge that while holding similar views on internet freedom to Anonymous eschews politics and instead just goes after whoever takes their fancy today.  I'm not saying this is what has happened in this instance, as it doesn't look as though the trolling is fully co-ordinated, but in the main the abuse is so obvious as to be laughable.  Some of it is plain misogyny, such as that coming from those using their own names and talking about "smashing up the arse", while talk of "all aboard the rape train" or anyone putting "lololol" or the like in their message pretty much gives the game away.

The real problem we have here then is that the likes of Caitlin Moran and all those that "boycotted" Twitter yesterday just don't understand the way the internet used to work and still does work outside of their own personal bubbles.  The only way to deal with being "raided" is to pull up the drawbridge, or ignore it.  Instead, we've had a media frenzy and surprise surprise, the abuse and rape threats keep coming.  Twitter itself has gotten the blame for something that has happened on every previous messaging platform and which they have all had difficulty dealing with.  Much of the trolling is coming from "one use" accounts, making it difficult for Twitter to do anything even if there was an easier way of reporting abuse, which itself would be a nightmare to administrate however many staff Twitter took on to do so.

It's understandable that those who have been subject to the abuse have taken it as being about men trying to silence women, about centuries of misogyny etc, but there isn't the same excuse for those who ought to know more about the wider internet.  The vast majority of those trolling won't be chauvinists but rather those who've taken exception, for whatever reason, to someone who ends up in the public eye, usually as a result of conducting themselves arrogantly.  They use insults or threats that they know will get a response, hence the emphasis on rape or death.  I might be blasé as in the past I've done my fair share of trolling and have in turned also been trolled, and threatened with getting beaten up etc, but I would have just laughed at most of the messages that have been sent. Reporting them to the police is the equivalent of a red rag to a bull, while treating it as though it's the most pressing issue for women in general is to lose all sense of proportion.

If anything, the whole debacle has just illustrated both how up themselves a hell of a lot of people are, and how they don't like it when the boot is on the other foot.  Anyone with a decent amount of followers can swiftly get anyone who criticises them, unfairly or not, an online mullering, as some have pointed out Moran and the likes of Suzanne Moore aren't above doing.  That number at the top of a profile only encourages the belief that they are an internet big shot; I have 30,000 people hanging on my every word, how can Twitter possibly cope if I simply stop enthralling every single one of those individuals?  The answer, it ought to be obvious, is that Twitter couldn't care less about political and media luvvies. It might have done a few years back before the site was embraced by celebrities, but it doesn't now when there are millions of 12-year-olds who use it only to declare their undying love for Justin Bieber or One Direction and who are the ones paying for the servers.  The idea of boycotting a free service in itself is only marginally less stupid than going on hunger strike in solidarity with those at Guantanamo, but going about it as some did just emphasised how out of touch with reality they've become.

None of this is to condone the nasty and malicious trolling Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy amongst others have been subject to. It has however revealed just how self-regarding and self-obsessed the modern media has become, and just how quickly it can find itself outside of its comfort zone. It might also highlight how little regard there is for some of them at the same time as they think they've mastered the new environment. One suspects though that this will go completely over their heads as they carry on #shoutingback.

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Sunday, August 04, 2013 


A number of Twitter users say they are boycotting the website for 24 hours.

Yeah.  You know when something starts off stupid and just keeps dafter until it finally explodes due to the sheer fuckwittedness of all involved?  This is the ne plus ultra.  It's like Clockwise but without the laughs.

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Monday, July 29, 2013 

The Twitter hate machine.

I've come to the conclusion that Twitter is the new arsehole of the internet.  There have been many sites that have combined both the best and the worst of the internet previously, but for the most part the media ignored them.  Twitter you can't ignore: there is almost always one story on the Graun's front page about something that's happened on there, regardless of importance, precisely because it's been so adopted by the media, even more so than Facebook has.  These self-same people are in the main the ones that are so shocked that, horror of horrors, there are some really rather nasty people on the internet who enjoy making empty threats against those in the public eye.  Trolling goes back to the earliest days of BBSes; it's only really moved on in that some people are now so confident they troll or flame using their real names.

Stewart Lee couldn't have been more right when he described Twitter as "a government surveillance operation run by gullible volunteers, a Stasi for the Angry Birds generation".  Twitter both monitors and reports, and if you're one of those caught up in a periodic furore when it's decided someone completely lovely has been unfairly traduced, then watch out.  Enter Caroline Criado-Perez, who just so happens to be a freelance hack.  Following her campaign to get true feminist icon Jane Austen on the £10 note, she was subjected to some pretty par for the course abuse on Twitter.  Regardless of who you are, if you become even briefly notable, you will get flamed and trolled, however unwarranted such treatment is.  It's how the internet has always worked.  Where once we just swore at the TV, now some people swear in public via Twitter.  It isn't pleasant, but a lot of people have found there's little to do other than put up with it.  Hell, just a fraction of the criticism and abuse Lee has received makes up part of his last show, Carpet Remnant World.  Turn it to your advantage; ignore it; block people; let them get on with it; or, and this is a really scary one, try and do without the stupid thing.  You might just be able to.

Don't though claim this is a unique problem for women online, because it isn't.  Yes, it's true that women tend to be abused in a far more degrading and sexual way than men are, as just some of the tweets directed at Criado-Perez suggest.  This is mainly due to how, again surprise surprise, the vast majority of trolls are men (or often boys), and usually men whose lack of social skills has made them especially embittered towards women.  As another report currently on the Graun's front page makes clear however, men can and have received almost identical treatment.  Stan Collymore has previously highlighted the racist tweets that were being sent about Patrice Evra in the aftermath of the Suarez affair, while even the slightest digging will find people being unbelievably stupid on the site, such as those complaining about the royal baby being assigned a "gender role".

This is the problem with bringing the police into the equation.  Not only would they never be able to cope if every potentially lawbreaking tweet was reported to them, it raises fundamental questions about fairness and just how abuse in response to abuse should be treated.  As Anorak points out, plenty of people said that Emma West, the woman convicted of a racially aggravated public order offence on Croydon tram, should be raped or killed yet no one it seems was arrested for saying so.  Nor were those who called for Azhar Ahmed to be killed prosecuted, despite the fact that they went further than he did.  The courts have also so far failed to take into consideration the "disinhibition" effect the internet has when sentencing those who have been convicted of going beyond the limits of free speech online: the two Facebook "rioters" were jailed for a staggering four years, longer than many of those who actually did riot, while Matthew Woods was given a three-month sentence for posting a bad taste "joke" about April Jones.  Those who want certain kinds of trolling to be treated as criminal or online threats as equivalent to those made in public or over the phone have to be comfortable in the knowledge that similar punishments will inevitably follow.

The most obvious reason as to why Twitter doesn't have an easy report feature is that it would be endlessly abused.  Moreover, if you are being subjected to an orchestrated campaign of abuse as Criado-Perez says she was, then the police probably are the right people to turn to rather than Twitter itself.  There's trolling and flaming, and then there's bullying.  To repeat a point, there's also an off switch.  Until relatively recently we managed to go without constantly bombarding each other with messages of 140 characters or fewer.  Yes, some people on the internet probably hate you.  More importantly, some people in real life probably like you.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013 

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Oh, the fun there clearly is to be had on Twitter if you're a member of the squabbling classes.  Somehow, I'd managed to avoid knowing about this whole "check your privilege" thing, which has apparently become err, quite the thing.  On the surface, it's a perfectly reasonable concept and is closely related to thinking before you speak, only for those who spout on about politics. Do you have personal experience of the subject you're talking about? If you don't, do you think that if you had it might change your perspective?

Only, as is the way of the internet, it's gone beyond this and turned instead into a way to shut down debate and maintain the walls between self-identifying groups, some of whom are incredibly quick to take offence at the slightest perceived insult. Think the row that blew up after Suzanne Moore's throwaway remark that women were meant to aspire to the body image of a Brazilian transsexual, which quite incredibly led to someone trying to claim that she might have further incited hatred against the already under threat transsexual community there.

Enter both Louise Mensch and Dan Hodges, neither of whom are impressed with how this phrase seems to have become popularised. Not that Hodges actually argues against it, he just mocks it, which is pretty much how he approaches everything he disagrees with.  As for Mensch commenting on privilege, wouldn't it be lovely if all of us could abandon those we'd pledged to represent for 5 years to move to the US? Her wider point, that feminists in the US organise while those over here argue on the internet, is also easily disproved.

There are though obvious problems with approaching subjects from this perspective, and these haven't been adequately answered by those defending the practice. First, that it is utterly ridiculous to expect a work of fiction to address how you specifically identify yourself. As a twenty-something white British male, I literally couldn't give a shit about a bunch of twenty-something white American upper middle class females, which is why I haven't watched Girls. When Caitlin Moran tweeted she literally couldn't give a shit about how Girls doesn't include people of colour, despite being set in Brooklyn, she wasn't being racist, just pointing out that it's incredibly difficult to write about something you have very little knowledge of.  Lena Dunham might have plenty of black friends and acquaintances, or she may not, but clearly what she knows best and can both portray and satirise in equal measure is the world that she has lived in and experienced.  Write about what you know.  It's one thing to expect a soap opera to reasonably represent the wider world we live in, since it's at least somewhat attempting to be realistic, it's another to demand it of a comedy set in a contained world, however much it purports to be commenting on how we live now.

Second is the dead end of intersectionality.  I would say this as something of an old socialist, but there is nothing that divides and also unites us as much as class.  This isn't to deny that gender, race and sexual orientation don't also have a major impact on prejudice, or that at times they don't all interrelate, it's that this compartmentalising of everything is getting us nowhere.  The emphasis on identity politics has achieved many things, but it hasn't succeeded in having an impact on overall inequality.  Nor does it help when Laurie Penny comes across as condescending of anyone who doesn't understand the theory, saying that schoolchildren have been using the term on the internet for years.  Have they? Are all schoolchildren now studying sociology at an advanced level?

Third, and most importantly, asking someone you disagree with to check their privilege doesn't work when those they're actually talking about act in ways that don't fit their own prejudices.  Consider the extremely sad case of Emma West, the woman whose rant on a tram in Croydon went viral after someone filmed it and put it on YouTube.  To say that she was demonised wouldn't be putting it too strongly; here was the reality of casual racism in modern Britain, in all its uneducated, drunken glory, or so went the majority of the responses.  Only today did we learn of West's background when she pleaded guilty to the charge of a racially aggravated public order offence: she's suffered from depression since she was 18, and had only been released from a psychiatric ward two months previously.  On the day itself she had taken a double dose of her medication, explaining why she seemed inebriated.  Since the video was posted online the hearing itself has been repeatedly postponed due to her mental health, something not helped by the fascists and racists of both the National Front and BNP wanting to befriend her.  Thankfully, the judge has indicated he will be imposing a community rather than a custodial sentence.

Whatever the original worthy intention was, the "check your privilege" meme has turned into just another example of social networks reinforcing our original views rather than challenging them.  Despite Penny writing of bloggers changing their perspective when challenged with better information, my experience is overwhelmingly of the opposite, and as Twitter is a supercharged version of a personal blog, it only exacerbates this further.  Nothing gets solved, and unnecessary antagonism and mockery are the end result. Some of which, quite frankly, is downright deserved.

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Monday, January 14, 2013 

Oh, for goodness sake.

Of all the things I don't understand about this world, the Twitter flounce out only to return 24 hours or so later is one of the things that perplexes me most.  It's the kind of thing I used to do on games forums when I was 15; when you're 55 you really ought to be over it.

This said, you can't help but sympathise with Suzanne Moore, if not with those who decided to come to her defence.  Short story is Moore contributed an angry, excellent essay to a Waterstones anthology in which, in a throwaway exaggeration, she suggested women are meant to aspire to the body image of a Brazilian transsexual.  Rather than take this in the good humour it was clearly meant, Moore was lambasted on Twitter for her crime of "transphobia", the chief complaint being that Brazil has a terrible record when it comes to hate crime against trans women and Moore's comments were therefore unhelpful and offensive.  It didn't seem to matter that I doubt the New Statesman (which reprinted Moore's piece) is among the foremost media outlets in Brazil, or indeed that there are far worse slurs in common usage (shemale, for instance), such is the nature of Twitter and its echo chamber effect that the entire issue was soon making waves.

Moore herself wrote a reply piece in the Graun, which again is fine, although she does enter into hyperbole again when she says this government makes Thatcher look like Shirley Williams.  Her point, that she doesn't care whether you were born a woman or not and that she meant no real offense, even if she also states that some "trans people appeared to reinforce every gender stereotype going".  Which again, is in my eyes a fair enough comment.  Controversial, not necessarily correct, but not offensive.

Enter stage left Julie Burchill, who has dedicated her entire journalistic career to being a contrarian.  You could call her insincere, except she appears to genuinely believes everything she writes, regardless of how it's intended to challenge, or more usually, offend, or at least seems to at the time.  She has therefore variously slandered John Lennon (someone's got to do it), supported the Iraq war so vociferously that with her partner she wrote an entire book about the hypocrisy of those who opposed it, and gone from finding God and becoming a Lutheran to apparently contemplating converting to Judaism, mainly down to her love for Israel as a country.

With friends like Burchill, Moore clearly doesn't need enemies.  Burchill's piece for the Observer, since removed from Comment is Free, was essentially one long tirade against transsexuals in general, rather than those who took offence in the first place.  If it had been posted as a blog on Burchill's personal site then there clearly wouldn't have been an issue: you can rant on about "dicks in chicks' clothing" and how transgender people telling Moore how to write "looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look" to your hearts content there, not least as that's what they'll expect from you.  The Observer giving it a home suggests no one at the paper actually read it, which wouldn't be surprising considering the fact it's now put together by two interns and a three-legged pussycat.

Honestly though, it's difficult to be offended by anything Burchill writes as it's just so obvious, and more pertinently, boring.  It's fine that she enjoys low culture; I really like certain aspects of what's considered low culture, such as exploitation films.  It's that she completely ignores how the same people she champions, the "chavs", the working class and celebrities are exploited by those she claims to loathe for the very things she defends, such as Big Brother.  The reason why she's found it so difficult to find a regular home for her columns in recent years is down to how she's become predictable, with the people who used to snap back against her having realised that she's a prime example of the commentator as troll, in the same way as all the other Glenda Slaggs.

For Lynne Featherstone to call for both Burchill and the Observer editor John Mulholland to be sacked is just grist to the mill.  That Featherstone happens to be a minister in the coalition that Moore so denounced may have influenced her decision, but it's also that Featherstone is one of those politicians who thinks nothing of calling for people to resign when the full facts are not yet known, as she did during the uproar over the Baby Peter case.  Interestingly, I can't find any indication that she made a similar call over Jan Moir's article on the death of Stephen Gately, although once she became equalities minister she did mention it in a speech to LGBT conference on Gay Pride.

Quite obviously, no one should lose their jobs over Burchill's column (as a freelancer, Burchill can't exactly be sacked in any case).  After all, the PCC didn't so much as chastise the Mail when it printed Moir's article, as she'd been careful not to use any pejorative term for homosexuals, which is key when it comes to breaching the PCC's clause on discrimination.  Whether or not Burchill's piece breaches the code isn't quite as clear cut: her riffs on "dicks in chicks' clothing" and "screaming mimis" certainly come very close to the line.  The PCC also tends to be harsher on the ex-broadsheets than it is the tabloids, so it wouldn't be wholly surprising if it did act.

All of this nonetheless rathers prove Moore's original point: that rather than organise opposition and resistance to the coalition's attacks on the most vulnerable in society, we're all too busy focusing on ephemera.  Austerity hasn't worked, yet there's very little anger, or when there is, it's directed at politicians in general rather than those who are imposing it.  Solidarity has partially broken down precisely because class is no longer the identity it once was.  Ours is an age where we label ourselves and gather in ever smaller cliques, often without seeing the wider picture.  It's one where anger's fine, as long as it isn't directed at anything that actually matters.  This sorry saga has ended up saying far more about the left in general than just about any newspaper think piece, and it's a deeply depressing picture.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012 

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but the police want a word about the names you called me.

Here's something that really hasn't been stressed enough, although Simon Jenkins hinted at it back in August: as deserved as the worldwide outcry was against the 2-year jail sentences for three members of the Russian group Pussy Riot, that's nothing compared to the 4-year stretches handed down to two young men in another authoritarian nation, namely our own.  These two men didn't supposedly offend Orthodox sensibilities by performing their anti-Putin song in a church; all they did was set up pages on Facebook for events that didn't take place.  This was enough for the judge to describe what they did as an "evil act".

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan will now be over a quarter of the way through their sentences, and will hopefully be released before too much longer.  As acts of stupidity go, theirs was fairly spectacular: setting up pages on Facebook advertising meeting places for riots during the hysteria of last year clearly was asking for trouble.  Nonetheless, no one turned up at either, and in Sutcliffe-Keenan's case he always maintained it had been a joke that had badly backfired.  For the two to be sentenced to terms far in excess of what others who actually took part in the riots received was an overreaction of quite staggering proportions.  That their appeal against the length of their sentences was also rejected is a stain on the justice system.

If this was simply an aberration, an example of the judge in question being as overcome by the hysteria of the moment then it wouldn't be so serious.  Since Paul Chambers finally succeeded in having his conviction for sending a "menacing" message on Twitter quashed at the High Court, albeit only after he had attracted the support of celebrities and pro bono legal representation, an absurd case that the Crown Prosecution Service should never have brought let alone twice contested at appeal, it might have been hoped that judges and magistrates would think long and carefully before convicting anyone else under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

Yet this week has seen two more such cases prosecuted, neither of which should have ever reached a court.  Azhar Ahmed was more fortunate than Matthew Woods, although not by much.  Earlier in the year Ahmed was moved in the aftermath of the deaths of four servicemen in Afghanistan to post an angry Facebook status update in which he said that "all soldiers should die and go to hell".  His status also made clear that more attention should be paid to the deaths of innocents in the country, although this seems to have been much overlooked.  It was clearly an angry, very much over the top and potentially offensive message, but it was a political one.  A failure to be eloquent should not be used to punish someone for making their voice heard.  Equally clear is that Ahmed did not say that soldiers should be killed; and as the court presumably accepted, Ahmed afterwards apologised to those who responded to his update, saying that he hadn't meant for anyone to be upset by it.

Despite all of this, Ahmed was convicted of sending a "grossly offensive" message, and was told by district judge Jane Goodwin that he had gone beyond the bounds of freedom of speech.  Indeed, she said that he had "failed" to live up to the responsibility that comes with it.  He was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service over two years; by comparison, the TV presenter Justin Lee Collins was ordered this week to perform 140 hours of community service after he was found guilty of a prolonged campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend.

Undoubtedly worthy of less sympathy is Matthew Woods.  Woods pleaded guilty earlier this week to sending a grossly offensive message after he was arrested "for his own safety".  Woods' crime was to post jokes on his Facebook page about both April Jones and Madeleine McCann, one of which was described by magistrate Bill Hudson as "abhorrent".  This seems to be a reference to Woods' show-stopping gag:

"What's the difference between Mark Bridger and Santa Claus? Mark Bridger comes in April."

If delivered on a stage, it would have been worthy of boos.  Posted online during a search for a child, with all the emotions surrounding such a disappearance, Hudson decided it was worthy of three months in prison.  Only Woods' early guilty plea prevented it from being for the full six months available under the law.  Earlier the same day the court fined a man £100 and ordered him to pay £100 in compensation after he called a woman who had pulled up alongside him in her car a "fucking black cunt".

Woods was badly advised, if indeed he was legally advised at all.  It seems dubious however whether or not an appeal would be worth it, as the joke clearly is grossly offensive.  The problem here is the law itself: we should not be criminalising grossly offensive messages purely because they are sent online.  No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited.  It's also ridiculous that the onus should be placed on the social networks themselves to police what is and isn't "grossly offensive" or "menacing" when it should be down to users to not outrage themselves.  There's a massive difference between someone posting jokes on their personal page that they suspect will only be read by their friends, never imagining that they'll be widely linked to or retweeted and someone directing their ire straight at someone, and it's one which the courts are not taking into account.

It's also the case though that as the Heresiarch says, true free speech has never been very popular in this country and seems to be becoming less so.  That judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become.  Twitter storms and online witch hunts rather than ignoring or calmly criticising the obnoxious and mean-spirited now seem the accepted norm, and it's a deeply dispiriting change.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012 

Another depressing passing frenzy.

Sigh. Honestly, are we going to carry on in this way until the end of time? People in other countries use social networking sites to help launch and organise revolutions; we apparently use them to flay alive those who say or do things we don't like. No one's safe, whether it's 13-year-olds with dreams of stardom, clearly drunk women mouthing off on trams, an ageing, jeans-wearing man who likes cars cracking a joke about impartiality, BBC news editors who light-heartedly included a panda in their list of women of the year, not expecting that over Christmas there would still be thousands of humourless people on Twitter, or as today's shown, an MP being careless in their choice of words.

I didn't really even want to write about this, but thought I had to after yesterday's post. And let's make this clear, as plenty of people have wrongly drawn equivalence between Diane Abbott's comments and Luiz Suarez's argument with Patrice Evra. There is simply no comparison between a footballer, who when asked by his opponent why he kicked him said it was because he was a negro, repeats the word a further six times, and then denies he's done anything wrong until he issues a feeble general apology months later rather than address it personally to the man he said it to, and a politician who was quite clearly not seriously implying that *all* white people love playing divide and rule when replying to a critique of the idea of there being both a "black community" and "black community leaders".

This said, Abbott's subsequent attempts at explaining her tweet have not been fully convincing. Yes, as the hash-tag in her original makes clear, she was defending the idea of there being a black community when in the past both the establishment (overwhelmingly white) and colonial powers have tried to prevent any such leadership from taking shape in order to keep black people in "their place". Politics is though inherently all about dividing and ruling, as this government is more than ably demonstrating, and Abbott should have known that generalising it to "white people" was a simplification way too far, even for 140 characters. She then compounded this by not fully explaining just what she meant, rather going for the age-old excuse of it being taken out of context. If she had done that to begin with and apologised immediately for any offence she may have caused, she probably wouldn't have received the public dressing-down from Ed Miliband, or prompted an onslaught from those who jump at any chance to launch an assault against the "politically correct" lobby on the comment sections of websites.

Sad to say, there is also more than an element of truth to their accusation that if a politician had made a similar blanket statement about black people (although you can't exactly turn it directly around in this instance) then it's more than likely they would be out of a job now, even if an apology was made or there were similar nuances involved. It's worth remembering that Patrick Mercer was ridiculously made to resign from his shadow cabinet position by David Cameron, supposedly over how he repeated the stereotyping used by drill sergeants (although it always seemed more likely it was to do with how he dismissed out of hand any suggestion that there might be racial discrimination in the army), a decision also likely made as an attempt to ensure that his "detoxifying of the Tory brand" was in no way undermined. It would be lovely to imagine that all instances of racism could be treated the same regardless of the colour of the skin of the person involved, but this itself is difficult when some on the left continue to believe that it is only those with white skin, or those in a position of power who can be racist. This needs to be seriously challenged and to change.

It would also help wonderfully if the media, rather than looking for constant controversy and jumping straight on the back of a Twatterstorm could instead continue to reflect on how the last couple of days have demonstrated that British society has been changed for the better by the courage, tenacity and dignity of two people who simply wanted justice for their son. They were helped along by both natural and unnatural allies, including those who made their own individual breakthroughs, like Diane Abbott. Moving on to the next passing frenzy was especially crass in these circumstances.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010 

Julian Assange, Wikileaks and bloggocks.

The whole saga surrounding Julian Assange, Wikileaks and the allegations made against him in Sweden has been I hope all will agree, dreadfully reported and commented on, including and especially by bloggers. Doing so accurately was always going to be made difficult by the differences between English and Swedish rape law, and also by the fact that until Assange's appearance in court yesterday, the full claims made by the two women against him were not known. Now that they are, it's apparent that two of the charges would in this country be investigated as allegations of rape.

In the light of this, John Band's initial post on Liberal Conspiracy on the case, which caused so much gnashing of teeth earlier in the week reads especially badly in places. It doesn't however alter his point, which was subsequently all but ignored by many of those who responded so furiously, that very, very few women who make rape allegations are liars. Even taking into account things said in the heat of the moment, and on Twitter, with its inherent limitations on expression, Cath Elliot's tweets and subsequent post were the product of bile and dogma rather than anything approaching an open mind. It might well be the antithesis of feminism "to automatically assume that a man accused of sex crimes is innocent", but it is the legal position that someone is innocent until proven guilty. To assume that is not to feed into the "prevailing misogynistic anti-woman narrative that says that all women who accuse men of rape are lying", nor is it an example of the "way left wing men always sell out women in the end".

As Chris has argued, cognitive biases have come into play on both sides. Too many assumed and indeed continue to allege that the claims made against Assange must either be malicious or part of a conspiracy to discredit the organisation which he has come to represent, when there is very little to no evidence whatsoever that the entire process has been motivated by anything other than the Swedish state wanting to see justice done on the behalf of two of its citizens. Unarguable is that they have handled the case very badly indeed, and as a result smears against Assange by those who oppose what Wikileaks has been doing since it started releasing the documents apparently obtained from Bradley Manning have been made far easier. While it's true that Wikileaks and Assange are not one and the same thing, such has been Assange's role both as its main creator and public face that it's not surprising that the two have become all but inseparable in the eyes of the media and indeed others.

One of the reasons for just why bloggers have fallen down so badly in this instance was elucidated by Assange himself at the beginning of the release of the current cache of US diplomatic cables. He and Wikileaks believed that rather than professional journalists doing the heavy analytical lifting from the documents, it would have been the bloggers and the likes of Wikipedia editors. Instead, the case has been the exact opposite. It's only when the initial work has been done that those individuals then started to dig deeper and provide extra perspective. In this regard, Assange and his friends fell into the belief that has been common for some time among the more prominent advocates of blogging, that it's been they rather than the mainstream, or rather the "dead tree press" or "lamestream media" whom have been in recent times providing the scoops and stories which have then been followed up by the old media. While this has been true in a few cases, it's overwhelmingly still been the dedication and hard work of professional journalists that have meant we've had such exposes in recent years as the rendition scandal, or the expenses file. True, it's often that these scoops are provided to journalists by sources or whistleblowers, yet it's still down to their work and the organisations that pay their wages that we've had governments held to account.

With the mainstream media not acquitting themselves well in respect to reporting accurately a story which began in a country where few have correspondents and where the main language spoken isn't English, bloggers had to rely on the few sources that were available or those that did attempt to look into the background of the case in more detail. This was further hindered by, as Unity explains, one of the main sources from Sweden being directly involved with Assange, putting into question their integrity. What's more, blogging itself increasingly seems to be becoming just an adjunct of wider social network interaction. With time which may once have been spent on posts being hived off to the use of Twitter and Facebook, articles in general and the research being done for them has been shortened further. This is a personal view, and one which many will disagree with, but Twitter especially seems to be exacerbating this tendency; anything that can't be said with relative brevity increasingly seems to be disregarded. What was once contained to forums where walls of text were greeted with the somewhat tongue in cheek response "tl;dr" seems to be spreading to blogging. Time constraints have always been something of an explanation, and it's often true that less is more, yet the discussion of certain subjects, especially those where little is certain often require care which can't be adequately expressed in as few words as possible.

To return to the cognitive biases on display, one of Cath Elliot's points against those defending Assange does hit the mark. Wikileaks has been almost unanimously accepted as a force for good purely on what it has released rather than its views on freedom of information, and with that has been supported with little thought for the potential ramifications if it starts releasing personal as well as government information. While I can no longer find it, during one of the outbreaks of the intermittent News of the World phone-hacking scandal the site ran a comment piece which was highly critical of the Guardian's stance on the matter on the basis that the information obtained via the method should be in the public domain regardless any public interest being served by its release. With the criticism that followed the release of the Afghanistan war logs, which on Wikileaks itself still contained information which could have identified the source (although it seems, as far as we know, that no one named has suffered personally as a result), that free for all stance might well have changed, yet we certainly can't be sure of what those behind the site would do should a cache of such material fall into their hands. Much the same applies to the "Anonymous" grouping and those behind Operation Payback, who many are cheering on, myself included, for hitting back at those spineless enough to withdraw their service from Wikileaks without providing a legal reasoning for doing so. We might not be so pleased should their next target for their opt-in botnet be less deserving.

One of the worst traits of modern media is to try to provide immediate context, and with it comment while also attempting to uphold the same levels of objectivity and authority associated with "old-fashioned" reporting. Doing so is all but impossible when you have the resources of a newspaper, let alone when you're a one man band. We would all greatly benefit if we dropped the pretence of being an unimpeachable source of the facts. Equally, we should be less quick to assume ill intent or read more widely into something from a single, short post. This might however be to go against the very grain of the internet, not just blogging.

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