THE pro-independence blogger Wings Over Scotland is back on Twitter and at first I was unsure how to feel: I disagree with most of what he says and I don’t much like the way he says it. But you know what: Twitter’s done the right thing. I’m glad he’s back. The reason I’m pleased is pretty straightforward really: the reinstatement of Stuart Campbell, who runs Wings, goes to the heart of the debate about what should and shouldn’t be said online and specifically what is “hateful” or “harmful”. Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk also seems to want to tackle these issues and that’s good, although the return of Wings underlines the fact there’s still quite a bit of mystery over what exactly he hopes to achieve and where we go from here. As for Stuart Campbell himself, you will remember that in 2014 he was one of the central figures of the Scottish referendum campaign but that he also became a vehement opponent of the SNP’s plans to allow trans people to self-identify their gender. In 2019, he got involved in a row between two journalists that touched on the trans issue and called one of them a c***. He was then suspended by Twitter for a breach of their code on hateful conduct and that was that – until the other day. What Twitter is saying now is that they have unsuspended Mr Campbell’s account because it does not appear to be in violation of their rules. What the rules on hateful conduct say is that users must not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. Mr Campbell pointed out at the time of his suspension, quite reasonably, that the tweet that got him banned did not refer to any of these categories and that Twitter does not ban swearing, even upper-level swearing like the c-word. In his response to his unsuspension, Mr Campbell also said he hoped other accounts which appear to have been taken down because of their gender-critical views would be reinstated. The problem here – and it’s the problem with Twitter more generally – is that no one really knows specifically why Mr Campbell and others were banned from the site in the first place and the lack of clarity is something we should worry about. As the political commentator Andrew Doyle points out in his recent book The New Puritans, Twitter’s terms of service tend to be so nebulous that anyone can be said to have violated them at any time. Doyle’s suggested solution is that sites like Twitter should only be allowed to remove content that’s illegal rather than just stuff they disagree with or find offensive and that’s very reasonable. You may not like the views of gender-critical feminists but they haven’t broken any law. With Mr Musk now taking over Twitter, some of us had hoped that this was the position he would take and there have been early positive signs. Famously, Mr Musk described himself as a free speech absolutist and while that was always over-the-top, he’s also said that the site’s “moderation council” will be reformed to ensure diverse viewpoints and his staff have obviously started unsuspending accounts that offended the previous regime, including Mr Campbell’s. This may make Twitter less comfortable for some people but it’s undoubtedly a Good Thing. I must admit though that I’m worried Mr Musk is not quite the champion of free speech he purports to be. For instance, shortly after taking over, he tweeted “comedy is now legal on Twitter”, the implication being you can make jokes about sensitive subjects without running the risk of being suspended. Absolutely. But then comedian Kathy Griffin was suspended for changing her Twitter name to “Elon Musk”. Mr Musk said the reason for her suspension was that accounts “impersonating” others had to make it clear they were parodies. But could it be that he just didn’t like the joke? I’m also worried that even Mr Musk may still be buying into some of the misconceptions that led to the problems at Twitter in the first place. The man clearly has a sense of humour – in response to people moaning about a possible $8 charge for certain Twitter services, he tweeted: “To all complainers, please continue complaining, but it will cost $8.” Funny. And he’s right: why should Twitter be free when it costs money to run? It also perpetuates the idea that journalism, which makes up a lot of what Twitter’s about, is cost-free too, which it isn’t. It’s also been gratifying, I must admit, to see Mr Musk winding up the right kind of people. As Andrew Doyle points out in his book, Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter led to the curious sight of self-proclaimed ‘leftists’ cheering on multi-billion-dollar corporations defining the parameters of free speech. But they’re not so happy now that the new billionaire in charge is redefining the parameters again and some people have flounced off. The sight of them being hoist by their own petard in this way has been quite amusing I must say, but the point surely is that we shouldn’t be leaving the definitions to billionaires. All of this is good and funny and promising, but in other respects Mr Musk’s regime is just as worrying as the old one because it appears to accept the same tropes that are used to justify censorship. For instance, Mr Musk’s Head of Trust and Safety at Twitter, Yoel Roth, said recently that the site was focused on addressing a surge in hateful conduct and the measure they were using was how many times harmful content was seen by users. But not only is “harmful” hopelessly vague, it accepts the idea that words can “harm” you. They can’t. Words can offend you, or upset you, or annoy you, but none of that justifies censorship. Perhaps Mr Musk is just getting used to things; perhaps he’ll get round to unsuspending lots of other accounts. And perhaps one day the British and American governments will get round to defining exactly how they can protect free, legal speech from whichever social media site is fashionable and whichever billionaire happens to be in charge of it. I am not necessarily hopeful that this will happen but it is long overdue in the world in which we can all fall victim to the nebulous “terms of service”. In the meantime, we must take strange comfort in the fact that Twitter users like Wings Over Scotland are being reinstated. Being confronted with views that are different to ours is not always comfortable (especially, I suspect, for young people who are convinced they’re right). But what should make us more uncomfortable is the idea that “wrong” views can be censored. And how about this for an even more uncomfortable idea? Perhaps the man who’s going to fix the problem is Elon Musk. Read more by Mark Smith: Is it really OK for an SNP politician to wear a white ‘indy’ poppy? The quiet signs of the new King’s legacy in Scotland Is this what it’s like to detest the Tories?
Published on : 2022-11-14 05:05:00
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