Recognise this chap? He is a “liar”, an “idiot”, a “terrorist sympathiser”, “deceitful”, a “disgrace”, an “insane liberal fool”, he is “on the payroll of the Muslim Brotherhood” and “on the payroll of euro neo-nazis”. He is “mad” (in Arabic as well as in English). But wait. This poor bloke is also “an ignorant Jew-hating worthless piece of shit” whose “hate can be seen in his eyes”. “Pigpiss be upon him in Hell”, is one of the curses directed at him.
He tells “lie upon lie, all of them directly or indirectly aimed at the destruction of Israel”. And he has received the following message: “The Islamist cut-throats you sympathise with would gladly slash your pencil neck from ear to ear just because you won’t bow to their bloodthirsty pedophile [sic] prophet.” And now a clue. In this same list of website filth – sent over just two days – an anonymous writer adds: “Could Robert Fisk be next?”
Former US diplomat Christopher Hill, a man whose views normally make me cringe – he was ambassador to Iraq, special envoy to Kosovo and a Dayton negotiator – has observed these dangers. “Instant access to information does not mean instant access to knowledge, much less wisdom,” he wrote recently. “In the past, information was integrated with experience. Today, it is integrated with emotion… Digital technology has played an important role “in fostering this atmosphere of bad manners, vicious personal attacks, intolerance, disprespect… Bullying has gone virtual”.
Just before Christmas, an Irish minister of state, Shane McEntee, committed suicide after receiving a swath of online hate-mail. At his funeral, his brother Gerry was applauded when he attacked social media: “Shame on you people, you faceless cowards who sent him horrible messages on the website and on text, shame on you.” Shane McEntee had been particularly condemned for defending government cuts to Ireland’s respite care programme and, anyway, I’m not sure that anonymous emails kill. Newspapers persecute people, too, but at least editors have an address.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister has now talked of new legislation against internet abuse – a dodgy one, this, when ex-IRA officials sit in Dáil Eireann and the abuse can work both ways. The French government, too, is considering new rules to prevent racist, anti-semitic and homophobic remarks on Twitter. Racist and anti-Jewish hashtags were removed in France in October but Twitter now claims that it cannot reveal their real identities – in other words, the culprits – since they were filed in California; thus French laws do not apply.
So let me go now to Irish journalist John Waters, who last year complained about the “disproportionate venom of online commentary” and the way bloggers resort to “pre-civilisational forms of communication”. In a cyber-style parody, he wrote that he would prefer that the creator of Twitter be arrested and his company closed down. Then he added – quite deliberately, in the language and grammar of the repulsive messages we all receive: “i wish they wud burn the Twitter founder in oil and leave his carcass out for the buzzards.”
New York Times or CNN or the BBC for decades. And the innocent must be able to seek redress in cyberspace as well as in print. Poison-pen letters are illegal. So are offensive electronic messages, if the Malicious Communications Act of 1988 is to be believed. So why should we be forced to drink poison on the Net?