TWITTER’S NEW LIVE STREAMING APP, Periscope, has been all the rage in the last two weeks and perhaps represents an entirely new direction for social media. And yet each time a new tool is developed to help with communication, it eventually gets hijacked by the haters, the trolls, the bigots. No sooner had Periscope launched than it ran into some trouble.
Scott Kelby is an Adobe Photoshop expert and a digital design specialist who immediately took to Periscope for its ability to get a messages out. But then he began to spot some troubles and wrote a piece titled, “Seven Things They Need to Fix in Periscope.” Most were just technical enhancements he recommended, but one has serious social consequences and he used it to challenge Twitter to up its game.
“I have seen some absolutely mortifying, disgusting, and downright filthy comments appear on screen while watching a Periscope broadcast, particularly if the person broadcasting is female. I’m stunned at some of what I’ve read . . . If Periscope doesn’t do something meaningful to curb this type of very inappropriate comments, it maybe its undoing.”
Kelby is only the latest well-known person to start pushing back at social network forums that continue to let hate in through the back or side door. The head of Twitter said only a few weeks ago that he was “ashamed” at what his own service was permitting and that concrete action would be taken. Celebrities like Adele and Naomi Judd are also fighting back against the trolls and haters after they became two of the better-known victims of online attacks. Two women have committed suicide in the last year over online attacks. It’s serious stuff.
For a number of years now the door has swung wide open to online comments of any kind in most digital venues, but it appears that things might be about to change. Over a half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. shouted out that, “Hate speech is not free speech. It rips people to shreds and destroys society in the process.” We are increasingly understanding how prescient that observation was. A quick search on Google regarding online “trolls” and “haters” quickly turns up numerous research findings as to the twisted reasoning of such individuals and how they seek to use any new invention to better the public space as an opportunity to stalk individuals beyond any sense of decency or respect. Beyond any good measure, researchers say, such individuals become infatuated with certain people, troll them, seeking to destroy their reputations and place in society.
As citizenship itself takes on new importance in a time of fundamental change, it will be inevitable that permitting any kind of hate language in the name of free speech will be to undermine the very essence of citizen responsibility. Even newspapers, online and traditional, are understanding it better. Large papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are now rethinking their online comments sections in light of the abuse they engender. Most newspapers don’t have the staff to sift through all the online entries in order to remove the bad ones and so anything goes. But now many of these papers are coming to terms with the liabilities that come inherent with providing a venue that could result in hatred, especially if proved those comments had direct damage on victims. Perhaps even worse, newspapers that refuse to moderate such comments are watching their readership decline due to their permissive attitude. A growing number of good people are not only getting off of social media, but no longer reading the newspapers either.
That old champion of liberty and right of free speech, Thomas Paine, understood what would happen if it was taken to excess. Challenging the leaders of his time, he wrote, “A body of people holding themselves accountable to nobody out not to be trusted by anybody.”
As with so much these days, it will likely be citizens that take the lead in demanding that the public space be an honourable and respectful place. As more and more studies are being released showing that online hate is slowly poisoning that place, taking action will involve more than just “blocking” or “unfriending.” Eventually pressure will have to be brought to bear on those organizations and venues that blindly serve as a forum for the worst of humanity.