Creating a free speech social media site is no easy task

Only a few years ago, the idea of online censorship being a problem for Westerners would have seemed like the paranoid delusion of a conspiracy theorist, but at this point it is difficult to find an example of a mainstream social media site which isn’t cracking down on anyone who strays from an increasingly narrow range of acceptable political opinion. Once you would have had to post extremist or illegal content to get banned from Twitter; nowadays they will kick you off for tweeting memes that the media don’t like. It is against this backdrop that University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson recently announced his intention to create a new product with the aim of reversing this trend. Provisionally titled ThinkSpot, the site would seek to avoid removing content unless required to do so by law, thereby providing a safe space for the discussion of contentious topics which are steadily being purged from the regular internet.

Although ThinkSpot has a domain and a landing page, there is nothing usable as yet and concrete details on its intended features are limited. It appears that it will aim to fulfil two roles simultaneously: a Patreon-style subscription service, and a discussion forum similar to Reddit. It is not difficult to see why Peterson feels the need to replace existing contenders in both of these areas, as Patreon has been indulging in political censorship of its own, prompting many creators (including Quillette and Jordan Peterson himself) to abandon the platform. Trolling will be discouraged by up and down-voting of posts by users, along with the more unusual imposition of a 50-word minimum post length, which Peterson claims will force people to “put a little thought into” what they write — a hope which seems a little over-optimistic, as a quick perusal of Time Cube will show that verbosity is no guarantee of intellectual rigor.

A common response to criticism of social media censorship is to point out that private companies can do whatever they like with their own websites, and anyone who doesn’t like it is free to create their own alternative. This is certainly true from a legal perspective — companies are not obliged to provide a platform to anyone, and taking them to court for banning people would be unlikely to meet with much success. For those who believe in the free market, setting up a competitor like ThinkSpot is the natural and sensible way to deal with this issue, and far more appealing than allowing the government to step in and start dictating how web sites must operate. But this is not the first time someone has tried to create a better, freer alternative to Facebook and Twitter, and the numerous problems which have beset these other sites should give some idea of the obstacles that Peterson will face in his attempt to bring his new idea to the world.

The first challenge is getting people to care about the new site and actually start using it. Any communication tool, whether it’s WhatsApp or an analogue telephone, is subject to a phenomenon known as the network effect, whereby the value of the product scales rapidly with the number of users. A telephone system with a single user is worthless, but ten users can make ninety different calls and twenty users can make almost four hundred. Likewise, the value of a social media site is not derived from its features, but from the number of other people you can use it to interact with. People may dislike Facebook, but if it’s what all their friends are using, they are unlikely to switch to a lesser-known competitor. Services like MeWe, Minds, Diaspora and the now-defunct Google Plus have all managed to build their own loyal fanbases, but none has so far achieved the critical mass necessary to start pulling large numbers of users away from the mainstream giants.

If an alternative site does manage to attract some users — perhaps by appealing to groups who are particularly dissatisfied with the behaviour of the major sites, or through the efforts of a few celebrity cheerleaders — it may still have difficulty gaining a sufficiently diverse population. Just like the so-called “ghost towns” produced by the network effect, the “echo chamber” phenomenon is strongly self-perpetuating. Once a site gains a reputation for being mainly popular with a certain demographic (such as conservatives, or male fans of Jordan Peterson), it naturally becomes less desirable to people who don’t fit into that category, which in turn prevents the population from diversifying and makes the echo chamber even more extreme. There are of course those who are quite happy to converse exclusively with people on their own side, but such one-sided discussions do not lead to the sort of intellectual progress that ThinkSpot seems to be aiming for.

Any newcomer to the field of social media faces the risk of becoming either a ghost town or an echo chamber, but there are further challenges for a site which takes a strong position in favour of freedom of speech. The first question is where the line should be drawn. No site can be completely free of censorship; at the very least it will have to prohibit illegal material such as child porn or pirated movies if it wants to avoid legal problems. However, allowing any content that isn’t outright illegal is still a risky policy. Sites like 4Chan, Voat and LiveLeak have their place in the world, but they are not communities that most ordinary people would wish to join. A totally uncensored discussion forum is likely to become a cesspool of hardcore pornography, shock images and Islamic State beheading videos — but as soon as you try to implement any kind of acceptable content policy, the site is no longer strictly uncensored, and you now have the problem of deciding what to allow and what to ban, while somehow avoiding the subjective political crackdowns we are now seeing on Facebook and Twitter.

A more serious problem which faces low-censorship services is that it is currently impossible to set up a web site which doesn’t require the cooperation of other commercial entities. You might promise not to remove lawful content, but your hosting provider, domain registrar and payment processor might have other ideas. In some countries, the state itself might intervene and decide that the moral purity of its innocent citizens will be threatened by your dangerous content, possibly resulting in a country-wide block. This is not just a hypothetical problem — Gab has been kicked off numerous app stores and web hosts because of its refusal to remove posts from the far right, while 4Chan and LiveLeak (amongst others) were blocked in Australia after the terror attack at Christchurch. No doubt many would say that these sites host a lot of unacceptable content, but that’s beside the point. We can’t insist that free market competition is the solution to social media censorship if those who do try to compete are promptly shut down by forces outside their control.

It may seem that many of these problems are avoidable for a newcomer like ThinkSpot. For example, if it functions as a pure discussion forum with no support for images or video, it is not going to end up full of porn or videos of terror attacks. Perhaps the complex issue of what content should be permitted can be made easier by splitting the site into Reddit-style communities with each sub-forum free to choose its own rules. What is clear, however, is that there are no easy answers. With too much moderation, you’re no better than Facebook; with too little, you have an extremist free-for-all which ordinary people won’t visit and web companies won’t host. If you want any kind of income, whether it comes from subscriptions or ads, you are now at the mercy of sponsors and payment processors to decide what content is permitted; with no income at all, paying for hosting and development becomes a problem. If you refuse to ban people, as Thinkspot says it won’t, you will be smeared by the media as a safe haven for Nazis, and collectively blamed if even one of your users turns out to be a violent criminal.

If it were just a few big social media sites who were carrying out censorship, then “build your own alternative” would be a good response. But the internet is not, and has never been, anything close to a free market. It is an interconnected web of gatekeepers, monopolists and Silicon Valley ideologues who have long abandoned any notion of content-neutrality, and instead decided that their role is to fight on one side of the ongoing culture war. Jordan Peterson has a large media presence, and despite what the more paranoid sections of the media would have you believe, most of his audience are not swastika-tattooed skinheads goose-stepping around their living rooms. Perhaps he will succeed in creating a forum which is popular, civilised, uncensored, respectful, editorially independent, financially secure, welcoming to outsiders, accountable, intellectually diverse and full of high-quality content — but if so, he will have achieved something which nobody else has yet managed to do.

The British plan to tame the internet

Back in September, I discussed whether it was time to impose some kind of government regulation on social media, in an attempt to address concerns over the power and influence of tech giants like Facebook and Google. This debate has now taken a significant step forward in the UK with the publication of the government’s Online Harms White Paper, which proposes the creation of a new online regulator which will enforce a “duty of care” on social media companies, requiring them to protect their users from a variety of vaguely-defined online “harms”, backed up with the threat of fines and perhaps even mandatory blocking by service providers.

While many of us will instinctively recoil at the suggestion of a government-mandated internet blocklist, with its nasty whiff of Big Brother and the great Chinese firewall, we must nevertheless acknowledge that the concerns of social media users (or their parents) are real. Cyber-bullying, grooming, sexting, and the possible mental health impact of excessive Facebook use should not simply be dismissed as non-issues, even if their prevalence and severity is likely exaggerated by campaigners. It is also clear that we cannot rely on the tech giants to place the needs of their users first. Facebook and Google are advertising companies whose users are not customers, just eyeballs to be sold to advertisers for profit. Concerns have been growing for some time over the intentionally addictive nature of social media, the misuse of personal information, and the ease with which children can access inappropriate content. It is unsurprising that the government feels that action is needed.

The contents of the white paper are perhaps less openly authoritarian than might be expected. Right from the start, in the foreword jointly written by the Home Secretary and the Culture Secretary, there is mention of the need for a “free, open and secure” internet, and a desire to “protect freedom of expression online”. Given that the UK currently has no protection whatsoever for freedom of expression online, with people being arrested and charged for posting dog videos or rap lyrics, it is difficult to take these ministerial promises at face value. Politicians may be paying lip service to free speech in order to forestall certain objections from campaign groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but the fact that they at least recognise the validity of such objections — rather than, for example, dismissing free speech as the exclusive concern of bigots and white supremacists — is a small step in the right direction.

There are some other signs that the government may be aiming for a more restrained approach. Companies will not be required to undertake “general monitoring of all communications”, because of the significant burden this would impose on costs and privacy. It is also claimed that monitoring obligations will not apply to private channels, although the precise definition of “private” apparently depends on the result of further consultation. However, the white paper does suggest that “specific monitoring” may be needed in cases of terrorism or child abuse, raising the obvious question of how companies are supposed to know which users to specifically monitor if they are not performing general monitoring to identify the problematic content in the first place. It seems that the government are already struggling to reconcile their surveillance objectives with the strong protections for user privacy which exist in the EU.

A more interesting exclusion is that of the so-called “dark web”, which is mentioned as being out of scope for regulation. The dark web is a colloquial — and some might say, rather alarmist — term for a number of technologies which use encryption to conceal the location of content and the identities of users, making it extremely difficult for governments or service providers to monitor and censor communications. Unsurprisingly, such an environment tends to attract various criminal elements, such as child pornographers and drug dealers, but as Western governments increasingly try to police online speech we can expect usage of the dark web to grow. Obviously there is no point in trying to regulate anonymous entities you can’t even identify, but it is interesting that the white paper seems to acknowledge this up front, rather than demanding that the dark web be blocked altogether.

So much for the exceptions. What is going to be covered by these plans? Actually, quite a lot. There is no suggestion that regulation is only aimed at behemoths like Facebook and Google; indeed, the executive summary explicitly states the opposite: “the regulatory framework will apply to all companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. These services are offered by a very wide range of companies of all sizes, including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines”. These rules will apply to every site on the internet, from YouTube through to Mumsnet and Wikipedia. The regulator does promise to take a “proportionate approach” by initially focussing on larger platforms, but the message is clear: if you run a website that hosts user-generated content, that content is now subject to government regulation.

One of the issues we see repeatedly with technology policy is that governments look at the internet and only see a bunch of companies, as if the web is just another TV channel broadcasting commercial programmes to passive, invisible viewers. At the level of infrastructure this is largely true — the basic functions of hosting web sites and routing packets are all under the control of private companies. But as far as social media is concerned, it is the users who generate the content, and it is users who will be affected by regulations on what can and cannot be said online. Facebook and Twitter are already quite happy to censor material in order to avoid controversy; in fact, Mark Zuckerberg himself recently called for exactly the sort of crackdown on “harmful content” being proposed here. And yet, while the white paper contains a few scattered references to a right of appeal for users, there appears to be little recognition that individual users are actually content creators, not just helpless consumers in need of government protection.

There is a notable example of this focus on commercial entities on page 35, which discusses an episode of the ITV show Love Island made available on YouTube. When this programme is broadcast on live TV or on catch-up services, it is subject to statutory regulation, but on YouTube there is no regulation at all. This is presented as a problem, a loophole needing to be closed. But choosing ITV — a commercial channel with only 230 thousand subscribers — as a typical example of YouTube content is disingenuous. At the time of writing, the most popular channel on YouTube belongs to the Swedish gamer PewDiePie, with 93 million subscribers. Perhaps more popular with Quillette readers is Jordan Peterson, who has around two million subscribers, outranking ITV by a factor of almost ten to one. These are not commercial TV broadcasters, they are private individuals exercising their freedom of speech, but if the British government gets its way, that speech will be regulated just like an episode of Love Island.

If the issue of “who” is going to be regulated seems excessive, the accompanying question of “what is even more alarming. On page 31 we see the Orwellian list of supposed harms that the government hope to address. In the creeping, cancer-like pattern that censorship typically follows, the list starts with things that almost nobody would defend, and which several observers have noted are already covered by a variety of existing laws: child abuse, terrorism, people trafficking. Then, having established that some things are beyond the pale, the list begins to grow. “Extremist activity”, “trolling”, “disinformation”, “intimidation”. What do any of these terms mean? Does the government even know? And if they don’t, how are social media companies expected to enforce the regulations in a fair and predictable manner? It seems that the intent is to cast the net as wide as possible, giving the newly-appointed Ministry of Truth free rein to crack down on anything that happens to bother them.

An obvious stumbling block for any attempt to regulate the online world is the issue of enforcement, and here the government deserves at least some credit for recognising the problem. The internet is a worldwide network, and a great many sites will have no interest in submitting to regulation — we can reliably assume that the likes of Gab or Wikileaks will not be taking orders from the British Home Office. The white paper emphasises the need to ensure a “level playing field” by avoiding the exclusive regulation of UK businesses, and suggests a number of enforcement strategies which might be used against foreign sites: public naming and shaming, delisting from search results or app stores, and of course, ISP blocking. But even here, they seem to have finally taken advice from somebody who understands the internet, and acknowledged that blocking has “technical limitations” (a huge understatement: blocking doesn’t work, period) and would only be deployed as an option of last resort.

To be fair to the government, this is only a white paper announcing to the start of a consultation process, not a bill about to be written into law. If you are in the UK and have some time to spare, you can send in your views, but we shouldn’t realistically expect any more than minor tweaks to the final implemented policy. The questions that the consultation is seeking to answer are mostly managerial details, such as which public body should become the regulator and how it should be funded. More fundamental questions, like “Should the internet be nothing more than a delivery mechanism for reality TV shows and online shopping?”, or “Does a country which already prosecutes thousands for people a year for online speech really need more censorship laws?” are noticeably absent. Given that regulating the internet was actually a manifesto commitment for the Conservative party (albeit carefully tucked away on the last few pages and given little media coverage), the chances of them abandoning this proposal are very slim indeed.

When discussing this issue last year, I suggested that while some form of social media regulation could theoretically have benefits, there is a danger that any rules imposed in the political climate of today would lead to more, not less, censorship. Looking at this white paper, it seems highly likely that this is exactly what will happen. Politicians may offer vague promises about protecting innovation and free speech, but there are no details of exactly how this will be achieved, and their track record in this area is dire. We can expect no pushback against these plans from mainstream social media giants, who are in most cases already censoring far more than what the law requires. With even supposedly liberal democracies apparently determined to convert the open internet into a sanitised state propaganda channel, the uncontrollable dark web they so fear might ultimately become the only internet worth using.

The Snooper’s Charter: another tool to control online speech

No matter who wins a UK general election, you can be quite sure that they will spend the rest of their term demanding an ever-expanding arsenal of new powers for law enforcement. Having freed themselves from the influence of those interfering lily-livered Lib Dems, the unencumbered Conservatives are therefore rushing full steam ahead with the intrusive mass surveillance legislation that they have been trying to pass for several years. While US tech companies are busy fighting government demands to make their software more FBI-friendly, authorities in the UK are trying to forestall the issue by granting themselves wide-ranging powers not only to snoop on our communications, but to compel private businesses into doing the snooping on the government’s behalf — secretly, against their will, and possibly at their own expense.

Needless to say, these plans have not proved popular. Internet providers are concerned about the cost of storing their customers’ web history for 12 months, privacy campaigners have noted the potential for abuse by hackers or overzealous authorities, and software developers are worried about the impact on UK businesses whose products will forever be suspected of harbouring government-mandated spyware. The only people who are almost certainly not bothered by the proposed law are actual criminals, who can trivially bypass the measures using freely-available foreign encryption services — but trying to explain to the UK government that they don’t rule the entire world seems to be a losing battle.

Anti-terror laws are not a recent invention, of course; there has been a new one passed every couple of years since the turn of the millennium, along with several previous incarnations of the “Snooper’s Charter” that never made it onto the statute books. What is remarkable about this particular bill, however, is how openly the government are admitting that its primary objectives have nothing to do with terrorism.

Consider the possible uses of so-called “Internet Connection Records” suggested by the National Crime Agency, the organisation tasked with investigating serious crimes such as human trafficking and child abduction. Of the eleven scenarios imagined by the NCA, only one of them even mentions terrorism and it’s purely about speech, not actual violence. The government are selling this law as a vital tool in the fight against terror, yet they can barely manage to come up with a single example of it actually being useful against a terrorist. Perhaps they are less excited about catching dangerous criminals than about the vastly increased possibilities for regulating online speech that this legislation will enable.

Some of the other proposed uses verge on the Orwellian. Locating a missing murder suspect based on his browsing habits might sound clever, until you consider how many false positives will likely be thrown up from a database of over 40 million internet users. Perhaps the most bizarre example, analysed in more detail by ISP director Adrian Kennard, involves a teenager who sends abusive emails to school staff from an anonymising email service, after which the police conduct a search for anybody who has accessed the webmail site in question, refining the results until they identify the household of a pupil at the school. A rude unsolicited email is a nuisance at most, assuming it even makes it past the spam filter. Is this really an issue that requires a police investigation?

That the official agency responsible for tracking down paedophiles and drug smugglers would celebrate the abuse of anti-terror laws to identify teenage trolls is deeply concerning, for two reasons. Firstly, because it reveals the extent to which the machinery of government has been infected by the wacky, hypersensitive politics normally associated with safe-spaced student unions, where unpleasant speech is considered a form of violence, and whining to the authorities an act of bravery. Law enforcement should be the stern voice of common sense, responding to a childish squabble by telling the kids involved to grow up, not by authorising a counter-terrorist surveillance operation.

Secondly, these scenarios give an ominous glimpse of the sort of fishing trips that bulk data collection will encourage. The government are not just seeking to examine the internet records of particular suspects, but to comb through the entire population’s browsing history looking for access to particular websites. Imagine what other dragnets could be conducted with this same technology. Anybody who has visited The Pirate Bay, obviously, because copyright infringement is illegal. Anybody who has visited the EFF or Open Rights Group, because only hackers are interested in that stuff. Anybody who has visited PETA, because they might be a violent extremist. Anybody who has visited Stormfront, EDL or even UKIP, because they are probably a racist. Anybody who has accessed Al Jazeera, maybe? Anybody who has ever read Spiked?

Supporters of this legislation will no doubt dismiss such concerns as fear-mongering, assuring us that the bill will not allow fishing expeditions, only targeted investigations involving illegal content like child pornography. But this offers little comfort given the vast range of other material that could also be considered illegal, from ripped episodes of Game of Thrones to offensive jokes or even racist dog videos. When people can be thrown in jail for posting — or even just reading — online speech, the claim that only “criminals” will be snooped on is practically meaningless. Should we really assume that the same authorities that lock people up for reading text won’t also make use of surveillance technology to identify more of these thought criminals, once they have the ability to do so?

We should bear in mind that the details of this legislation have not been fully worked out; not all of the uses proposed by the NCA may be legally permitted or technically feasible. But the message is clear: speech policing is here to stay, will likely increase in future, and, if backed by intrusive surveillance powers, could become dangerously efficient. Even if certain forms of spying can be justified in the interests of fighting terrorism, unless we see a dramatic reversal in law enforcement priorities — a focus on actual, violent crime, instead of harmless speech — we should be extremely wary of granting the government any more access to our online activities than it already has.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that for all their bluff and bluster about respecting civil liberties and offering a change from the status quo, the coalition government has decided to push the same ludicrous Internet spying policies that they originally opposed while Labour was in power. Wheeling out the usual pathetic excuses — blah blah terrorists blah blah paedophiles blah blah protecting children blah blah — they are proposing that the entire population’s web browsing history and email headers (but not content) should be collected by ISPs and made available to authorities, without a warrant, so that they can conduct fishing expeditions for potential criminals based on their Internet usage patterns.

Decision Making

The flaccid ineptitude of the arguments put forward to justify such plans, derived largely from GCHQ’s blind panic that dangerous criminals might be discussing their next suicide bombing or child abduction using those newfangled computery things, is matched only by the shocking technological ignorance that is reflected in their proposed implementation. For starters, British ISPs are capable of accessing data only for messages which are exchanged via their own servers, which immediately excludes anything sent within or between major US webmail providers such as Google, Hotmail or Yahoo. But nobody uses those, right, and it’s not like any Abdullah, Mohammad or Jamal can just sign up for an account no-questions-asked, is it? Oh wait.

The security services also want access to web browsing history and the details of private Facebook and Twitter messages, and here the government continues to demonstrate its inability to grasp the fact that it does not have jurisdiction over the entire world. The British Home Office is no more in a position to demand privileged access to the internals of American social networks than the governments of Iran or Libya, and their requests will most likely be met with much the same response. In some cases that doesn’t matter, because the data can be collected when the UK-based user accesses the foreign website over the internet — except when the connection is encrypted, like Twitter’s secure login page, or Google’s secure search, at which point the British spies are, once again, out of the picture.

The proposals have also made no mention of VOIP services such as Skype (also encrypted) or video chats such as Google+ hangouts (which produce so much data that storing all of it would be next to impossible), so we can safely assume that the government either has no solution or simply hasn’t thought of these issues. It also appears to have given little consideration to the potential for abuse by hackers or corrupt insiders — one might think that the recent phone hacking scandal would have served to illustrate the danger of innocent people’s private information falling into the wrong hands, but expecting politicians to get the message would be to under-estimate the resilience of human stupidity.

In short, we are looking at plans based on little more than guesswork, platitudes, and a childishly naïve faith in the impartial objectivity of law enforcement with regard to the powers it needs, which are not just technically flawed but so utterly trivial to bypass that one has to wonder if the government is being deliberately set up to fail by its “advisors”. Given the contemptuous disregard for evidence and the scientific method that has been displayed by various administrations over these past few decades, it would be unsurprising if the current crop of consultants have simply decided that giving ministers enough rope to hang themselves is more effective than wasting time dispensing advice which will fall on deaf ears. Perhaps when some influential “family values” blowhard gets their fetish porn-browsing history leaked to the tabloids the New English Stasi will actually learn something.

The criminal justice system has too much time on its hands

I think we should take a moment to congratulate the British police force for their apparent success in eradicating all crime from the country. All of the nation’s murderers, rapists, arsonists, muggers, car thieves and fraudsters are safely behind bars; detectives and forensic investigators are dejectedly sitting around with no crimes left to solve; and our fellow citizens can sleep with their doors unlocked, secure in the knowledge that there are no would-be miscreants around to cause trouble.

At least, this is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the recent news that, following an indignant frenzy of complaints lodged by other Twitter users, police in Swansea have arrested a 21-year-old man who posted racially offensive comments online regarding the hospitalisation of black Premiership footballer Fabrice Muamba. The fact that the publically-funded agents of law enforcement can find nothing better to do with their time than tracking down and prosecuting people for being mean on the Internet must be a testament to their effectiveness in ridding the country of crimes that cause actual harm.

This is just the latest in a series of increasingly frequent incidents where criminal proceedings have been launched against people whose only offence is writing words on a web site. One particularly notorious example was the so-called Twitter joke trial, a case that is arguably an order of magnitude more ridiculous than this one, concerning as it did an entirely humourous message that was neither intended to be offensive nor treated as such by anyone who read it — except of course for the snivelling, vindictive bureaucrats in charge of the so-called “justice” system, who are determined not to let such trivialities as public interest or common sense get in the way of their conviction rates.

I find racism as despicable as any other irrational prejudice; but, unlike the generation of pampered cry-babies that seem to set the political agenda these days, I am capable of hating an idea without demanding that it be censored by the authorities. Not only is such censorship abhorrent to those who value the free exchange of ideas, however “offensive” they might seem, but it is also totally ineffective in bringing about any positive social change. Arresting people for using the word “nigger” is not going to persuade the world’s racists to give up their bigotry any more than the French and German governments’ bans on swastikas and Hitler salutes have magically eliminated neo-Nazi ideology from their respective countries.

One cannot say with certainty what truly motivates cases like this — perhaps a combination of political correctness, jobsworths enforcing the rules simply because they can, an attempt to compensate for the accusations of “institutional racism” that resulted from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and various other factors — but it is probably a safe bet that not one person’s life has been improved as a consequence. Those who harbour an illogical hatred of differently-coloured people haven’t changed their views in the slightest, levels of racially-motivated violence are exactly where they were a week ago, and all the while Internet users have to tread ever more carefully to avoid expressing an Illegal Opinion that will get them a fine and a criminal record.

If the government ministers in charge of cost-cutting had any sense, they would be looking at the rising obsession with speech crime as a sign that the systems of law enforcement and public prosecution are carrying some significant extra fat which could safely be trimmed.

The Internet witch hunt

No to witchesFollowing the recent rioting and looting in London and various other UK cities, politicians and other career pontificators have been quick to apportion blame to social networking sites for the part they supposedly played in organising the violence, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence that the internet had anything to do with it. One example is MP Louise Mensch, who has gone as far as to suggest that social networking should be “turned off” during times of trouble. Even if this were possible, it is a policy more readily associated with totalitarian states cracking down on popular uprisings than with relatively minor incidents of public disorder in Western cities. It seems that there is just something about the internet that causes even the most inoffensive authority figure to start channelling Gaddafi or Ahmadinejad as soon as it is mentioned.

Politicians making fatuous knee-jerk comments in response to high-profile public events is of course not news; as far as anyone can tell this seems to be their primary function. However, the breathtaking arrogance underpinning the belief that a supposedly free and democratic country should be able to arbitrarily decide whether, when and how its population can communicate, along with the abject ignorance of how the internet works — Facebook and Twitter are both based in the US, which is not subject to diktats from the British Home Office last I checked — does not inspire much confidence in the leadership’s ability to deal with future incidents in a reasonable manner, and makes its criticism of regimes such as Libya and Syria seem rather hollow.

The ridiculous over-reaction to anything technology-related doesn’t end with politicians either: two men in Chester have each been sentenced to four years in jail for “inciting violence” via Facebook, even though no actual violence resulted from their actions. To put that into perspective, footballer Marlon King was sentenced to less than half of that (18 months) for smashing in a girl’s face after she had the temerity to turn him down. In the eyes of the law, posting inconsequential words on the internet is apparently a more heinous crime than causing permanent injury and disfigurement to an innocent woman in a sexually-motivated attack.

Blaming technology for human failings is hardly a new phenomenon, these examples are just individual drops in a much larger cesspit of modern-day superstition and irrationality which seems to grow ever deeper and more malodorous by the day. If a murderer kills a victim he finds on Facebook, the media label him the “Facebook killer”, implicitly blaming a web site for the tragedy as if murders were not already happening thousands of years before computers existed. If the embittered gunman who massacres his classmates happened to play a video game at any point in his life, it must have been the game that turned him from a gentle peace-loving soul into a deranged lunatic. A disturbed individual kills his girlfriend — you guessed it, it was the internet! Gather up a few more hysterical nut-jobs and demand another worthless thought-crime law to honour her memory. And so the stupidity continues.

People have always needed somewhere to point the finger; a bogeyman hiding under the bed which is the cause of all of their problems. At the same time, wider access to knowledge, whether it’s from the printing press or the internet, threatens to undermine the authority of self-elected information gatekeepers who derive power from artificial ignorance. The solution for the savvy despot is therefore simple: demonise the disruptive technology, convince the populace that it is dangerous and not to be trusted, and let the scared idiots beg for their own enslavement. The small minority of people with reasoning abilities worthy of the name will object, but they can be easily ignored, outnumbered and out-voiced by the shrieking believer horde, and quite possibly branded as witches themselves for daring to question the inquisition’s divine purpose.

Yet somehow science marches on, struggling beneath the dead-weight of a society full of credulous, anti-intellectual parasites; forced to circumnavigate roadblocks dropped into its path at every turn by self-serving and dishonest professional fear-mongers. And eventually, like all witch hunts, this one will be over; just as we are no longer running scared from devil-worshippers or communists today, the time will come when it is clear to all but the most stubbornly pig-headed of ignoramuses that the unprecedented social catastrophe supposedly threatened by the internet has simply failed to materialise. Not to mention that this is a cycle, rather than an isolated occurrence, and there will soon be a new moral panic in progress. One can only guess at what the next one is likely to be, but my money is on either sex-bots or virtual reality porn. There’s nothing like easier access to sex to start those dogmatic moralists and student union feminists frothing at the mouth.