Brendan O’Neill

Twitter’s new ‘Safety Council’ makes a mockery of free speech

Twitter's new 'Safety Council' makes a mockery of free speech
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If you think it’s only crybaby students who set up safe spaces in which they might hide from gruff words and ugly sentiments, think again. More of the world beyond touchy campuses is being safe-spaced too. Consider Twitter, which this week announced the establishment of a ‘safety council’ — Orwellian much? — to ensure its users will be forcefielded against abusive, hateful or unpleasant blather.

Yesterday, on Safer Internet Day — which promotes ‘safe, responsible, positive and boring use of digital technology’ (okay, I added ‘boring’) — Twitter revealed that it has anointed 40 organisations to advise it on how to make sure tweeters can ‘express themselves freely and safely’. This Trust and Safety Council, to give it its full, somewhat ominous name, will discuss what kind of ‘tools and policies’ might be required to allow users to report ‘hateful’ commentary, and potentially have it extinguished.

Given the censorious instinct of some of the group's Twitter has entrusted to devise its safety policy — the Internet Watch Foundation; the Safer Internet Centre; Feminist Frequency, which campaigns against rough, sexist speech online — we can be sure the final policy won’t be to allow people on Twitter to say whatever the hell they want and everyone else to engage with, ignore or block them as they see fit. No, we’re likely to see the development of tools that allow for the flagging and maybe even squishing of dodgy or just unpopular viewpoints.

Most agitators for ‘safety’ on Twitter claim simply to be battling violent death threats or harassment. It would be too generous to call this disingenuous. It’s downright false, as Twitter’s head of policy in Britain, Nick Pickles, made clear yesterday. In a piece for the Guardian, Pickles said the great challenge confronting the new Trust and Safety Council is the fact that the internet has made ‘challenging, even upsetting, viewpoints… more visible’, in a way that ‘is not always comfortable to look at’. And the question for Twitter is how to ensure ‘that the noise generated by those who seek to create division’ is ‘drowned out’, ideally by what Pickles decrees to be ‘voices of hope and respect’.

Got that? This is about ‘drowning out’ challenging or upsetting viewpoints. For all the Twitter safety crowd’s claims about merely wanting to wipe out violent or misogynistic speech, in truth their concern is with certain moral outlooks — the upsetting ones, the vulgar ones, the ones that those voices of respect (ie. respectable people) find unappetising. Having once described itself as ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’, Twitter has now openly said it will encourage the drowning out of 'viewpoints' that its elite council of ‘safety advocates, academics and researchers’ decree to be problematic.

There’s a tsunami of Orwellian euphemisms in Twitter’s illiberal new initiative. By ‘safety’, it means the right of certain people — those who are driven by ‘hope and respect’ — not to encounter things they find upsetting. So safety means censorship. And the use of the words ‘trust’ and ‘safety’ in the title of its new council cannot disguise that this will basically be a 21st-century, virtual version of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Only where the compilers of that book of banned things aimed their ire at heretical or lascivious utterings, Twitter and its advisers will drown out ‘challenging or upsetting’ views.

Even those of us, like me, who don’t use Twitter should be concerned about the site’s shift from bigging up free speech to promising ‘safety’; from being a free-for-all to a safe space. For it speaks to the creeping corrosion of the dream of internet freedom. In 1996, the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, written by cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow and lovingly cited by early internet warriors, cockily said to governments: ‘You have no sovereignty where we gather.’ The internet was seen as an unprecedented free space, where anyone could publish their thoughts at the click of a button, and where old national laws against blasphemy or hate speech or thoughtcrime might be circumvented.

Not anymore. In recent years, new groups have emerged to demand restraints and gags on ugly or problematic speech. They aren’t governments, whom that Declaration of Independence said were ‘not welcome among us’. Rather they're advocacy groups, safety experts, feminist campaigners, and Twitter’s right-on users and bosses, a new motley crew who, under the banner of ‘safety’, want to hamper the expression of disturbing or upsetting views.

We’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the glorious experiment in human intellectual exchange that was the Wild West Web. The censorious side is winning. They have successfully elevated their own right to psychic comfort over everyone else’s right to express their views, their anger, and, yes, their hatred. They think their right never to see something that upsets them outweighs the historic, hard-fought-for freedom of people to say and write what lies in their hearts and minds. What arrogance is this? Twitter, destroy your Safety Council before it destroys you and the sometimes ugly but ultimately amazing world of internet freedom.