The Guardian

The myth of the free speech crisis

How overblown fears of censorship have normalised hate speech and silenced minorities. By Nesrine Malik

When I started writing a column in the Guardian, I would engage with the commenters who made valid points and urge those whose response was getting lost in rage to re-read the piece and return. Comments were open for 72 hours. Coming up for air at the end of a thread felt like mooring a ship after a few days on choppy waters, like an achievement, something that I and the readers had gone through together. We had discussed sensitive, complicated ideas about politics, race, gender and sexuality and, at the end, via a rolling conversation, we had got somewhere.

In the decade since, the tenor of those comments became so personalised and abusive that the ship often drowned before making it to shore – the moderators would simply shut the thread down. When it first started happening, I took it as a personal failure – perhaps I had not struck the right tone or not sufficiently hedged all my points, provoking readers into thinking I was being dishonest or incendiary. In time, it dawned on me that my writing was the same. It was the commenters who had changed. It was becoming harder to discuss almost anything without a virtual snarl in response. And it was becoming harder to do so if one were not white or male.

As a result, the Guardian overhauled its policy and decided that it would not open comment threads on pieces that were certain to derail. The moderators had a duty of care to the writers, some of whom struggled with the abuse, and a duty of care to new writers who might succumb to a chilling effect if they knew that to embark on a journalism career nowadays comes inevitably with no protection from online thuggery. Alongside these moral concerns there were also practical, commercial ones. There were simply not enough resources to manage all the open threads at the same time with the increased level of attention that was now required.

In the past 10 years, many platforms in the press and social media have had to grapple with the challenges of managing users with increasingly sharp and offensive tones, while maintaining enough space for expression, feedback and interaction. Speech has never been more free or less intermediated. Anyone with internet access can create a profile and write, tweet, blog or comment, with little vetting and no hurdle of technological skill. But the targets of this growth in the means of expression have been primarily women, minorities and LGBTQ+ people.

revealed that a “wide cross-section” of Americans experience online abuse, but that the majority was directed towards minorities, with a quarter of black Americans saying they have been attacked online due to race or ethnicity. Ten per cent of analysed tweets sent to 177 female British MPs. The 20 of them who were from a black and ethnic minority background received the total number of abusive tweets.

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