Should Twitter intervene as bigots try to turn back the Ocean?Posted on

@frank_ocean

This week the Hip Hop singer Frank Ocean publicly stated that he had had a sexual relationship with a man. Subsequently he has been subjected to hatred and vitriol on Twitter. The level of abuse, and the sheer volume of it, is shocking.

An account in Ocean’s name @frank_ocean_ (not a genuine account) has ReTweeted many of the messages of ill will. I won’t repeat any, it is depressing. Needless to say many wish harm on Ocean, use hurtful words and some use their own interpretations of religious teachings to wish Ocean the worst of possible consequences.

The majority of the hatred pours out of his home country the United States, a country where free speech is enshrined in its Bill of Rights. Speech, in whatever form, is protected much more fiercely in the US than in Europe. The hundreds of Tweets I have seen this morning directed at Ocean would be a clear breach of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 in the UK and much of the conduct would constitute harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Not so in the US so far as I understand.

The right to free speech is profoundly important, however, it must be weighed against the rights of others. The law in the UK will only intervene in extreme circumstances. Hatred and violent speech is one such exception. The abuse levelled against Ocean is the sort of abuse which leads to extreme circumstances and often, when vulnerable people are the target, suicide. Laws must reflect the society we want to live in. Do we want a society where individuals are free to abuse others without fear of sanction?

At the very least Twitter has the power to sanction users and suspend accounts. Twitters rules guard against “abuse”, however, that is not defined any wider than “violence or threats”. Some of the Tweets aimed at Ocean do go that far but others are simply ignorant hatred directed at Ocean and homosexuals. Is now a good time for Twitter to show that it is prepared to take a morale stand against bigotry? I would suggest now would be a very good time to do so.

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