Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
This is the famous quote from The Guardian’s founder CP Scott that sits at the top of their Comment is Free web page, illustrating what value the media outlet puts on discussions with its readers. However, in January of 2016 their Readers’ Editor Stephen Pritchard penned a piece explaining why some topics will no longer be open to comments on The Guardian website.
Certain subjects – race, immigration and Islam in particular – attract an unacceptable level of toxic commentary”.
A note from their executive editor, Mary Hamilton, goes on to detail how these three topics attract comments that “tend towards racism, abuse of vulnerable subjects, author abuse and trolling.”
On the surface, the reasons given for closing comments such as protection of authors from unnecessary abuse seem sound enough, but for long-time readers and commenters on the Guardian website, many felt that this was another form of censorship that shuts down opportunities for sensible debate on emotive subjects such as race, immigration and Islam. Furthermore, some argued that this was a way of keeping the Guardian’s left leaning stance unchallenged by those with different beliefs. Stephen Pritchard responded to his first article and the debate is ongoing.
Nevertheless, The Guardian is still seen by many as a liberal supporter of free speech, but “toxic commentary” and the meaning behind it can invariably change depending on which circles you belong to. Is it fair to say that speech promoting discrimination, hate and a general proficiency towards taking others’ freedoms away is “toxic commentary”, or can those views still be expressed in a way that promotes healthy debate? And are these viewpoints still rhetoric that we should excuse as “free speech” without taking the negative connotations of them more seriously?
Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook appear to be platforms where that kind of speech is given almost completely free reign; although they are still heavily moderated. Recently in fact, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for being caught unawares in a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about curtailing criticism on Facebook of Germany allowing Syrian refugees into the country. Zuckerberg appeared to confirm that Facebook was working to block anti-migrant posts, raising serious questions about censorship on social media.
It would be difficult to deny that race, immigration and Islam are topics that grow in importance every day within many multicultural societies. Furthermore, they have become overtly present as terrorist attacks throughout the world become more frequent, and we create more platforms for individuals to express their views on these.
On Tuesday 22nd March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels took over national and international news, and Twitter exploded with well-wishes from users, a #PrayforBrussels hashtag, and artwork showing solidarity with the survivors and fatalities of the attack by terrorist group ISIS. However, the other side of the Twitter reactions were made up of xenophobic and Islamophobic views.
An article in The Salon entitled “Multiculturalism is Death” gathered just a few examples of the worst responses to the Brussels attack, with one Twitter user linking the terrorist attacks to the recent refugees Belgium had welcomed into their country:
@Nationalist_UK: Masochistic Lefties still screaming #refugeeswelcome whilst real Belgians lie destroyed in an airport. Utterly disgraceful. #Brussels.
Another user echoed the sentiment with a sweeping statement about Muslims:
@AmyMek: Every Muslim is a potential terrorist. At any moment, he may take the Quran’s demands 2 kill the rest of us seriously! #Brussels.
However, for every comment, there appeared to be a counter-argument:
@davidschneider: “Hard to see how an attack motivated by hatred prompts some people to think “you know what we need? More hatred” #Brussels.
Regardless of whether we agree with these opinions or not, wild assumptions and knee-jerk accusations in the form of tweets and Facebook rants have an undeniable impact on society. In some cases they translate into scary real life situations where innocent people are publicly attacked for their appearance or beliefs.
Equally, far left views are not exempt from using social media as a way of influencing societal opinions. Helen Lewis of the New Statesman suggested that many social media users were dishonest about their views of the Labour Party in 2015 publicly, in order to appear on the side of popular opinion that was anti-Conservative. However, the results of the election shocked those who had underestimated the Conservative vote, basing assumptions of lack of support for the party on Facebook likes, shares, and retweets.
Similarly in the Netherlands, people opposed to housing refugees in their local towns were visited by police after expressing their disdain for the proposal on social media; raising concerns about what freedoms of expression really exist even on Twitter and Facebook.
Yet the question still remains that within our multicultural society, how accurately do viewpoints expressed on social media (such as those opposing refugees and grand statements being for or against certain political parties) reflect the views of the voting public? A poll of Britons by YouGov in July 2015 found that;
In 2014 during the lead up to the UK General Election, immigration became a hot topic to speak on from all Parties, as a way to address ‘growing public concern’ which has drastically increased over the last five years, and some would argue, has become a scapegoat for wider economic problems in the UK.
Ciaran Thapar wrote for the New Statesman about the way multiculturalism was being referred to by politicians and in the media, and how it has become a part of and a separate thing to, British identity in different circles.
But reductively labelling it a failure, dismissing the very diversity that has become an integral part of the British character over the years, may risk oversimplifying the complex, tangled web of challenges we face as a once proud patchwork society.”
Thus within this patchwork, sometimes the loudest voices can be mistaken for the majority viewpoint, when in fact that is not always the case. And although Twitter gives voices to those using terrorist attacks as a political and fear-mongering opportunity, there are still those who want to educate and continue to encourage unity in societies, and Twitter can also facilitate that.
When the Paris attacks happened in November 2015, hashtags like #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists and #TerrorismHasNoReligion began trending in response to the spike in Islamophobic rants and messages of hate that were coming out of Europe across social media.
Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook cannot really be blamed for the way society reacts to terror and tragedy; they merely provide a place for people to talk openly about their reactions which otherwise might have gone unheard. Many also see social media as a tool for democracy and use it as such.
Facebook and Twitter has helped individuals get organised in order to topple over dictators, express anger over decisions their government has made, and even US Presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump have used Twitter regularly as a way of campaigning, garnering support and measuring his own popularity.
Despite the numerous democratic possibilities of online discussion and involvement in how our societies are governed, social media interactions do not necessarily translate into voting action, and some have questioned if constantly following the “will of the people” on social media actually undermines the democratic process of voting for one leader.
Furthermore, the will of the people is changeable, and if anything, there is an argument for suggesting that the way in which the news is told and shared, has much more of an impact on societies opinions than anything else. A week after the Paris terrorist attacks by ISIS in January 2015, more than 2000 Nigerians were killed by Islamist militants Boko Haram, but the world’s media paid little attention to these attacks. Similarly, in the wake of the Brussels attacks, Turkish residents noted the numerous ISIS attacks on their nation in recent years, that has been disproportionately reported on, with a clear difference in supportive outpouring to non-western countries.
So are social media users really an accurate measure of societal opinions and views on multiculturalism today, or just a snapshot of the western world and those who have internet access? If we assume the latter, then perhaps we are less likely to rely on the ever changing waves of opinion on social media as confirmation of a whole nation’s viewpoint.
Yes, the opinions of individuals will likely be those same ones taking part in the democratic process of voting, but perhaps we would do well to remember that comment is free, but facts really are sacred.
Written for The Metropolist April 2016
Image credit: protester by Symbolon from the Noun Project