We don’t need saving from moronic speech
The decision to uphold the convictions of the Facebook rioters marks a dangerous new stage in the free-speech wars.
Did you know that all it took for people to trash their own neighbourhoods this summer, such was the ‘collective insanity’ then gripping the UK, was for someone to suggest they do so on Facebook? A few words saying something like ‘let’s have a riot’ and, hey presto, off people went to have a riot.
This didn’t happen, of course. But it is a view of last August’s riots that seems to provide the rationale behind the sentencing of 20-year-old Jordan Blackshaw. This was the man, lest we forget, who on 9 August set up a Facebook ‘event’ entitled ‘Smash Down in Northwich town’. This hardly inspiring suggestion involved would-be rioters meeting up for said ‘smash down’ outside a local McDonald’s.
In explaining why Blackshaw was to receive a four-year jail sentence for doing nothing more than publishing words online, the judge claimed that ‘this happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation’. Blackshaw’s conduct, he continued, ‘was quite disgraceful and the title of the message you posted on Facebook chills the blood’. Yesterday, Blackshaw’s appeal against the harsh sentencing, alongside that of another ‘Facebook rioter’, was rejected by the Crown Court.
So, how many people responded to Blackshaw’s online suggestion during this period of ‘collective insanity’? The answer is one: Blackshaw himself. (He was immediately arrested). In fact, only nine of his 147 Facebook friends even responded online. Yet the reason for this collective no-show, at least as far as the judge was concerned, was ‘the prompt and efficient actions of police’ who eventually took Blackshaw’s Facebook page offline.
So it couldn’t just be that most people thought Blackshaw’s idea was stupid and decided not to have any part in it? It couldn’t be, as the judge himself said, that ‘the idea revolted many right-thinking members of society’. No, the reason why no one else acted on the words of an idiot, apparently, was because the police intervened.
The belief that the only reason people didn’t meet up for a ‘smash down’ outside their local McDonald’s was because of police intervention tells us a lot about the authorities’ view of the public: that is, we are seen as little more than a monkey-see, monkey-do mob willing to turn into Blackberry-wielding rioters at the merest suggestion on Facebook.
What seems to have been forgotten in all this is that Blackshaw didn’t actually do anything. In fact, none of those punished for writing stuff on Facebook during the riots did anything. That includes: Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, also jailed for four years for setting up a ‘Let’s Have a Riot in Latchford’ Facebook page; David Glyn Jones who posted as his Facebook status ‘let’s start the Bangor riots’; and father-of-two Martin Hartshorn who asked on Facebook, ‘who’s up for a riot in town?’, before suggesting that local takeaways and the Islamic centre be burnt down.
Contrary to what judges appear to think, suggesting that a takeaway be burnt down on Facebook is not the same as actually burning a takeaway down. One is speaking your mind, the other is a physical act of destruction. There is a fundamental difference between the two: the first is an articulation of an idea, the second is a result of an autonomous individual deciding to act upon an idea.
The conflation of the two has dangerous consequences for freedom of speech. If you believe that the very act of expressing your thoughts could be a criminal offence, then you become far more reserved about what you do and don’t say – free speech is inhibited. Furthermore, the public here are conceived not as autonomous individuals able to decide how to act for themselves, but as mechanical automatons blindly obeying commands uttered by Facebook users.
Yes, making pro-riot comments on Facebook is a moronic thing to do. But the right response is the one that was already taking place informally at the time the comments were being posted, with people either pointing out why such utterances were stupid or just deciding to ignore them completely. That is why there was no need for the authorities to intervene and shut down Facebook pages, all in the name of saving the public from itself.
Once you start to allow the authorities, be it judges, the police or the government, to become arbiters of what can and can’t be said, then a very dangerous line is crossed: the state can punish you for simply saying what’s on your mind. Which is precisely what has happened, with people having been given jail terms, curfews, electronic tags, unpaid work or the task of writing formal letters of apology.
In sentencing some teenage rioters, a judge described their actions as being ‘symptomatic’ of the ‘Facebook generation’. The reason the authorities use such a label are evident. Facebook symbolises all that is wrong with the world. In the offline world, what we say, eat, drink and how we interact with each other is already increasingly regulated by the state. Compared to this, the online sphere appears like the Wild West, a place where laws of behaviour are yet to be laid down by a behaviour-obsessed sheriff. This is why the online world appears to the state as a threat. It is just too free and too unregulated to be left to its own devices.
The state’s attempt to colonise social networks marks a dangerous development in the free-speech wars. Which is why, should he have lived in the twenty-first century, Voltaire would almost certainly have tweeted: ‘I may disapprove of your status update, but I will defend to the death your right to post it.’
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He is producing the debate The rise of the clicktivists: will the revolution be digitised? at the Battle of Ideas festival on October 30.
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