from the say-what-now? dept
Earlier this year, we had a podcast with Jacob Mchangama about his excellent book, Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, and I pointed out one theme that is seen throughout the book. Over and over again, vocal supporters of free speech eventually seem to change their position when they realize people say things they don’t want to hear. It often leads to some seriously shifted rationales. The latest in this theme is Simon Jenkins, longtime UK journalist and currently a columnist for The Guardian in the UK, who has penned a truly bizarre column basically embracing ditching free speech online because Salman Rushdie got stabbed.
Yes, you read that right. A journalist (the kind who normally supports free speech) wants to throw away free speech online because an author, who published a physical book before the internet was really around, and faced a fatwa from Iran for decades, got stabbed. And this is supposed to make sense.
But, of course, he frames this taking away of free speech… as a defense of free speech. Because of course he does.
The title kinda gives it away: Do you want free speech to thrive? Then it has to be regulated, now more than ever. Um, ok.
The piece begins by talking about Salman Rushdie, who you likely have heard was stabbed recently, almost certainly in response to the decades-old fatwa issued against him over the (excellent and worth reading, by the way) “Satanic Verses” book. Now, there are all sorts of reasons to talk about Rushdie’s situation in the context of free speech, given that he’s an example of what happens when government forces try to crack down on speech they dislike. But, it’s unclear what this has to do with regulating online speech — given that Rushdie wrote a book (which was published back before most people were on the internet) and was stabbed in person.
The internet seems wholly disconnected from this issue. Except to Jenkins.
Jenkins, weakly, tries to tie the issues together by leading us down a mythical garden path. In short, here is my paraphrase of the steps Jenkins drags us along: John Stuart Mill supported free speech… except in cases of “harm” to others… and using that logic, many countries banned Rushdie’s book… because they didn’t want people to take offense… and so now governments are criminalizing taking offense… including in the UK’s Online Safety Bill.
That… all seems fairly tenuous as I could easily challenge many of the leaps of logic down that garden path. Either way, in just a few easy steps we get from Rushdie getting stabbed to the UK’s attempt to regulate speech.
And, at least, on this point, Jenkins makes a bit of sense. He rightly seems to dislike the UK’s Online Safety Bill. And that’s the right position to take if you support free speech, because, as we’ve noted in multiple articles, it would be a disaster for free speech. Jenkins recognizes that:
The latest venture by the state into this morass is the Johnson government’s online safety bill, with its bizarre concept of “legal but harmful”. However well-intentioned, it seeks to monitor an astonishing range of evils and indisciplines, from online stalking to incitement to riot, from phoney medicine to fake Russian news. How it will work has yet to be stated. It is a censor’s charter – or nightmare.
Ok. We agree. The Online Safety Bill is bad and will be used for vast amounts of dangerous censorship. But… then Jenkins seems to embrace it? And… seems to think we need to pass it because of Rushdie. What’s that got to do with Rushdie? Apparently… it’s because people were mad at Rushdie on the internet?
Regulating the internet has become a major political challenge. Europe faced a similar crisis with the advent of printing, and evolved licensing and copyright laws to handle it. The key then lay in identifying the author and the publisher. There had to be some accountability for the words. In contrast, the internet has led to an anarchy of dissemination. While Rushdie has authored a book and is accountable for it, many of his critics are part of that familiar social media feature: an anonymous mob howling after its victim across the ether.
Um, what? Plenty of his critics, including the guy who issued the fatwa against Rushdie, the Ayatollah Khomeini, did so under their names. And it wasn’t because of the internet. I’m sure there were some critics of him online who were anonymous, but… what’s that got to do with the fact that he was stabbed, in person, by a guy with a name?
You can see where this is heading of course. Even as Jenkins rightly fears the impact of the UK’s Online Safety Bill he’s… gone to what Jillian York has rightly called “the white man’s gambit” and decided the real problem is… only anonymity. For the attack on Salman Rushdie. Who has been living under death threats since a time when the internet barely existed, and which had nothing to do with the internet in any way, shape or form.
But Jenkins is somehow sure it’s to blame.
He throws in a weird paragraph saying “sure, sure, maybe anonymity might be important sometimes, but it can’t be that important.”
Some claim anonymity helps whistleblowers and others – but such benefits are massively outweighed by the harm done by the unruly and unknown mob.
“Some claim”? How about naming who is claiming that — like actual experts on this topic, like the aforementioned Jillian York, along with tons of human rights experts who know that anonymity is essential to protecting all sorts of people (blithely summarized by Jenkins as “whistleblowers and others”). It protects way more than “whistleblowers” — who actually are quite important. It protects marginalized people. It protects people in abusive relationships. It protects kids with different viewpoints from their parents. It protects critics of the rich and powerful. It protects everyone at some point or another.
Going back a decade, we posted a powerful list that another expert had put together, asking people why they didn’t want to post under their own names, and it’s worth reposting here, since Jenkins thinks all these people don’t deserve basic privacy.
- I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.
- I publish under my nom de plume, it’s printed on my business cards, and all of the thousands of people I know through my social networks know me by my online name.
- I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.
- I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.
- I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor.
- I work for a private club. I have to carry a card around which states I will not share any element of the club with any sort of media. So, If I want to talk about work (and I do) on the net, I have to use an alias.
- I’ve been using this name for over 10 years in the “hacking” community. There are a nontrivial amount of people who know me *only* by that name.
- As a former victim of stalking that impacted my family I’ve used [my nickname] online for about 7 years.
- Under [this name] I am active in a number of areas of sexual difference for which it would not be wise for me to use my flesh legal name.
- My actual real name is utterly non-identifying, as 1) it is the name of a character in a movie, and that overwhelms google search results 2) it’s not unique at ALL.
- [this name] is a pseudonym I use to protect myself. My web site can be rather controversial and it has been used against me once.
- I started using [this name] to have at least a little layer of anonymity between me and people who act inappropriately/criminally. I think the “real names” policy hurts women in particular.
- I use the pseudonym to maintain my online anonymity because I am polyamorous and have no desire for professional acquaintances to discover this.
- I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.
- I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for [social media]. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.
- We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.
- This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.
- I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.
Jenkins seems to think that all those people don’t really matter.
Hell, there was even a period of time in which Rushdie himself went into hiding to protect himself. I guess Jenkins thinks that Rushdie should out himself to governments and social media, because his anonymity isn’t that important… because some other anonymous people might criticize him.
And, at the same time, beyond the weird attempt to connect the Rushdie stabbing with anonymous online mobs, the actual evidence has shown that anonymous people online are no worse than people posting under their real names. As we’ve detailed, and which a basic Google search would have revealed, studies have shown over and over again that people act just as badly (and sometimes worse) under their real names.
Basically, the idea that anonymous online mobs are the problem is not actually supported by the data. And, the biggest hint that this is the case is that Jenkins is left using… the physical stabbing attack of a book author that had nothing to do with either the internet or anonymity, as his example of why we should do away with anonymity.
And, of course, from there is gets worse. Rather than just attacking online anonymity, Jenkins goes on to pull out the line that only the most ignorant people pull out: that social media must be “a publisher, not a platform.”
The very fact that social media companies enjoy global accessibility should impose an added obligation on corporations to accept they are “publishers not just platforms”. Great as the technical problems may be, they must be held to account for the harm they can cause to others.
Funny how that’s in quotes there, but he doesn’t say who he’s quoting. Because it’s idiotic and nonsensical. Nothing in any of this has to do with whether or not a website is a “publisher” or a “platform” which is a meaningless distinction made up by bad faith politicians, not anyone who understands anything, either about the law or technology.
And, separately, why is he blaming social media companies for the stabbing of Rushdie? Social media had nothing to do with it. Anonymity had nothing to do with it. It’s not about social media. It’s not about publishers v. platforms (which is not even a thing).
I honestly don’t understand the thought process behind this column. Salman Rushdie got stabbed, because of foolish people overreacting to a book he wrote… and therefore, it is incumbent on us to blame anonymity and social media platforms… even though they had nothing to do with any of this.
How does shit like this get published in the Guardian?
Filed Under: free speech, online anonymity, online safety bill, salman rushdie, simon jenkins, social media, uk, white man's gambit