Suicide as a result of trolling on the internet is a modern trend. The problem with legislating away the trolls is that it comes up against freedom of expression. The internet is certainly a new phenomenon that has made the problem of bullying worse, but the solution is to get out of social media.
A tragedy with its origin in an alleged domestic violence incident has dominated the English headlines this week. Caroline Flack, host of a popular reality show called Love Island, committed suicide after being charged by the police for assaulting her boyfriend. She insisted on her innocence (there was blood, but it was an accident, she said), but everything indicates that the reason for ending her life at age 40 had less to do with a possible court conviction than with the harassment she suffered in social networks since the matter came to light in December.
Such has been the stir that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to declare through his spokesman that it is time to impose more legal controls on the social network “industry.” But there is a problem. One runs into the question of freedom of expression.
On the same day that Flack took her own life, a 55-year-old, named Harry Miller, appeared in court in England. At first glance, and according to the English police, Miller was responsible for a tweet troll. His favourite sport is to make martyrs of more or less famous people like poor Flack, although in this particular case the accusation against him was that he had expressed hatred against the transgender community. His tweets were unquestionably derisive. He sent one that said: “I was assigned Mammal at Birth, but my orientation is Fish. Don’t mis species me.”
Shortly afterwards, a couple of police officers showed up at Miller’s workplace and informed him that his tweets about transgenders would be officially recorded as ‘non-crime hate incidents.’ Another policeman later came to his house, according to Miller, ‘to find out what I was thinking.’
It was Miller himself who brought the case to court, denouncing police harassment. The judge agreed with him.
‘The significance of police turning up to Mr. Miller’s workplace because of his political views should not be underestimated,’ the judge said. ‘To do so would mean underestimating an elementary democratic freedom. In this country we have never had a Cheka (Soviet secret police), a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.’
It is worth continuing to quote this judge. “The ruling emphasizes the vital importance of freedom of expression in a democracy and reminds us that freedom of expression includes not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative.”
As a journalist I applaud these words. As a person I see that they can encourage those who enjoy making people like Caroline Flack suffer. In this case the journalist wins. Because, as the venerable American news anchor Walter Kronkite said, freedom of expression is not only important for democracy: it is democracy.
The key is, I believe, to distinguish between opinion and lies, between offending and harming. If someone says, as happens with some frequency, that what I write proves that I am uneducated, ignorant, condescending, even a racist, I may not like it, but I will not go to the police to complain. If, on the other hand, someone falsely accuses me of having plagiarized something or of being in the pocket of some institution, my professional and personal life can be harmed. I can then resort to existing social laws that protect against defamation.
Perhaps what we should do is refine our definition and defend not so much freedom of expression as freedom of opinion. No one has explained it better, as far as I know, than the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty.
‘But the peculiar evil of silencing an expression of an opinion,’ Mill wrote in 1859, ‘is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinions, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and lively impression of truth produced by its collision with error.’
In short, everyone wins with freedom of opinion, both those who are in favour and those who are against it. What Mill could not have anticipated is the Internet, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. If he had the good fortune of living today, what would he have said to Caroline Flack so that she did not succumb to despair? I suspect he would have recommended she follow the example of the young American singer and songwriter Billie Eilish.
On Wednesday, four days after Flack’s death, Eilish exploded on the BBC against the ‘haters’ that swarm the networks. Celebrated lately after winning a Grammy and having composed the music for the new James Bond movie, Eilish announced that she was leaving Instagram. ‘I stopped two days ago,’ she said. ‘It’s weird. Like, the cooler the things you get to do are, the more people hate you. Yeah, the internet is ruining my life, so I turned it off.’
If Caroline Flack had thought of doing the same, she might still be alive. I know that Eilish’s case is unusual, that once inside it is difficult to escape from the parallel world of the networks, and that for many millions of people life without them is not life. But the solution does not have to be having a government nanny imposing legal limits on freedom of opinion. The solution is in the hands of the users. Let the twisted haters and the sad trolls vomit their insults but don’t read them, don’t listen to their shrieks. Or if one is unable to resist the temptation to listen to them, laugh at them or feel sorry for them. Do not be offended. As Billie Eilish has discovered at 18, both entering social networks and allowing yourself to be offended is, after all, optional.
John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 22 February 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell, https://www.clarin.com/opinion/caroline-flack-libertad-opinion_0_q9oF7GfG.html