The internet can promote freedom and democracy – it’s a shame it also facilitates mob rule and witch-hunts

Even those who are wary of the utopianism the net has generated tend to take it for granted that the new communications technologies have saved us from the need to worry about censorship. Sceptics fear that the web provides us with too much information, not too little. Enthusiasts see a future of unlimited free speech when all the old arguments about libel, official secrecy and blasphemy become redundant.

To see how far the consensus spreads look at Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?, a new collection of the views of 150 of the world’s leading minds on the technological revolution. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaks for the sceptical. He turns off his computer when he needs to think. Like Nicholas Carr — whose essay ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?’ infuriated Silicon Valley — he finds that the restless interruptions of working online have added to the ‘world’s attention deficit disorder’. The net’s dismal achievement has been to reduce further our collective attention span ‘from the depths to which television brought it’.

All bracingly iconoclastic. But when Tegmark turns to freedom of speech, he is as sure as the most wide-eyed cyber-utopian that it will flourish online. ‘Once the cat is out of the bag and in the cloud, that’s it,’ he says. ‘Today it’s hard even for Iran and China to prevent information dissemination… The only currently reliable censorship is not to allow the internet at all, like in North Korea’.

His Korean example unintentionally shows how confused not only cosmologists but the rest of us can become when we think about censorship. Nazism, communism and George Orwell’s depiction of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four have such a hold on our minds that we forget that for most of the time censorious pressures have not come from classic totalitarian states. When John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859 he could not have imagined the horrors of the 20th century — I am sure his liberal optimism would have collapsed if he could have done. He was not concerned either with the tiny Victorian British state. Instead, Mill argued against the social pressure to conform to conventional religious and political opinion. ‘Society can and does execute its own mandates,’ he said. ‘It practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.’

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Twenty years ago, you would have turned to the mainstream media to see ‘social tyrants’ policing taboos and singling out scapegoats for punishment. Today that role has passed to the web, and, disturbingly, the web is far better at enforcing conformity than the press of the 20th century. In Britain’s case, the day when the new mob succeeded the old was 16 October 2009. Jan Moir, a columnist on the Daily Mail had implied on the basis of no evidence that Stephen Gateley, a singer with Boyzone, had not died a natural death, as the doctors had said, but was the victim of his ‘sleazy’ gay sex games.

I am not defending her. I no more read her work than I vote for Diane Abbott, watch Jeremy Clarkson or support any of the other targets of web-generated outrage. All I am defending are the notions that freedom of speech includes the freedom to be foolish and foul and that criticism should not turn into intimidation. The reaction against Moir was a vicious Twitter-organised mass denunciation. Of all the social media sites, Twitter is best suited to witch-hunting. It eggs its users on with a rolling update of ‘trending topics’ — a list of bandwagons for the multitude to jump on.

The bandwagon that mowed down Moir was more of a juggernaut. So many people complained to the Press Complaints Commission that its website crashed. Advertisers pulled their business from the Mail. Users put Moir’s home address on Twitter so that furious readers could — who knows? — go round to her house and beat her up. My colleague Charlie Brooker of the Guardian, who had written a justifiably scornful article about Moir, had second thoughts when he saw her address flash up on her screen. ‘I felt like part of a mob,’ he said.

Intimidation does not stop at journalists and politicians, who should be able to look after themselves. The old media could only target a few people at a time. The new media allow cyber-stalkers to pick on the ugly girl at school, the trade union member who does not go along with the party line, or, to quote a case I know about, the supporter of Tony Blair who still defends the second Iraq war and has been hounded online and offline by a creep from the Labour left. ‘Your nightmare is just starting,’ he tweeted. ‘It will only get worse for you every day 24/7 till you leave Twitter… Zionists can’t save you… Racist Tory anti-Islamic scum.’ Harassment that began with online abuse ended with him arriving at her university to confront her. She has had to call in the police.

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If this rabble-rousing sounds a long way from the concerns of cosmologists and physicists, they should remember that Wikipedia has become the dominant supplier of information to students. Because it crowd­-sources, it invariably reproduces the consensus on any given subject, and forgets that in scientific disputes, as elsewhere, a minority of one can be right; that what is today’s received wisdom will be the future’s folly. When Wikipedia shut down its websites as a protest against proposed anti-piracy legislation this week, the sum of human knowledge may well have increased.

Even in the area of classic political censorship, the net is a Janus-faced technology. I have had the honour of getting to know dissidents from Syria, Iran and Belarus over the past year. Not one of them would abolish the net if they could. They know from hard-won experience that all the claims of the boosters about it permitting the subversion of authoritarian hierarchies by allowing anyone to write at virtually no cost are true. Of course they are. The only way for a regime to stop all dissent now is to become like North Korea.

But the computing technologies remain double-edged, and not only because they allow dictatorships, democratic governments, spies and criminals new tools to collect information on a scale beyond the dreams of the secret police forces of the 20th century. The net gives writers the illusion of unrestricted freedom and then mockingly denies them the power that makes freedom effective.

Researching a book on censorship, I had to hammer into my head this essential distinction between total control and effective control. North Korea has the former. Most dictators manage with the latter. Putin and his mafia friends, for instance, do not worry overmuch that their opponents can publish somewhere in cyberspace or in a few highbrow journals as long as their critics cannot break away from the fringe and reach the mainstream. The regime’s success in containing today’s protests will depend on their ability to ghettoise the opposition media. If it can, then I am afraid it will survive. Similarly, the Islamist persecutors of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie wanted to silence their dissenting voices permanently. When they failed, they too were prepared to settle for the effective control that comes from warning Muslims and ex-Muslims of the awful price they might pay if they speak out against religious orthodoxy. The oligarchs whom England’s wretched legal profession welcome to the High Court in London are no different. They would if they could wipe every unf
lattering word about them from the web. A few have tried, but for the rest the readiness of the English judiciary to punish their critics and announce without shame that they are men of good reputation is compensation enough.

The Web cannot free individuals from the obligation to confront oppressive laws and regimes, and to suffer the same old punishments if they fail. For all the appeal of a cloud floating above us beyond the old controls, the need to struggle for democratic reforms and liberal protections at home and abroad is as great as ever. The net can never set you free. Only politics can do that.

Nick Cohen’s You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom is published this week by 4th Estate.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated