Belfast Telegraph

Is free speech simply a matter of opinion?

Should we judge online opinions by the same standards as we do a newspaper article, or are they more like a conversation in the pub, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Suddenly the most fatuous and trite opinion carries weight. You can see the effects of this in online trading. Usually, if you have any problems with a product ordered through a site that has a ratings system, you will find that sellers are anxious to get their five stars and will sometimes almost plead for the fifth.

This is good for buyers who know the power of feedback. But it is a worry for traders who, if they thought they were in the right in a quarrel with a buyer over an ordinary, old-fashioned shop counter, could have stood their ground.

One of the biggest feedback sites on the net is TripAdvisor. If you've been on a holiday and want to tell the whole world what you thought of the hotel, or the food, or the manners of the waiter, you can sneer or cheer on the web.

Hoteliers who get good feedback should be happy with this and those that get bad should improve their own performance.

All very reasonable in theory but, as every hotelier knows, there are a lot of picky cranks in the world. There are a lot of mendacious and frivolous people who on a whim can damage your business.

So Duncan Bannatyne, one of the dragons in The Dragons Den is planning legal action that, if successful, could curtail freedom of expression and stops sites carrying unreasonable negative comments.

Why should someone have the right to damage a business? The danger is that, if the courts decided that all comment on feedback and social network sites had to be more tightly regulated, the effects might spread wider and threaten much that we value.

There have, in the past, been attempts to sue critics who have given bad reviews of restaurants.

There was one very high-profile case in Belfast against The Irish News, when Caroline Workman gave a colourful account of a meal she had received.

Had she not won her case, any critic today would be vulnerable to the argument that even a negative book review, being a threat to sales, is an unwarranted intrusion on business freedom.

The trouble then would be that we'd only get good reviews and would trust none of them.

Similarly, online comment should perhaps be left to find its own balance. People who use those sites can perhaps be trusted to learn to read them astutely and to recognise the cranks for themselves.

But opinion is an odd commodity; increase the output, broadcast the opinions of everyone to the whole world, the frivolous or malicious thoughts of teenagers, scribbled in haste, and the world sometimes takes them very seriously.

A journalist loses her job for a comment about the murder of Michaela McAreavey in Mauritius. Suzanne Morrison is 19 years old. Who cares what she thinks about anything?

Her view that the media coverage of the murder was disproportionate could be argued for or against by reasonable people. Had she said it in a media studies class, as opposed to on Facebook, she might have provoked a lively and fascinating debate.

Her jibe that karma might have played a part sounds vindictive.

It also, however, accords with the religious views of hundreds of millions of people, most of who would normally, of course, have the decency not to rake up past lifetimes so soon after a funeral.

But then Suzanne maybe doesn't even understand the concept of karma, just had some vague sense that what happened in a hotel in Mauritius somehow had to happen because - well, whatever.

What we are left with is ignorance, timing and insensitivity. In a teenager? Shock, horror. When was the last time we encountered something like that?

If she had aired these opinions in a bar, or among friends, her employer would not have felt the need to publicly disown them and she might not have left her job. But her problem is that the world does not regard online opinion as frivolous and insignificant. It calls it to account in just the same way as if the points made were aired on radio, or published in a newspaper.

And maybe in that it is we who are in the wrong.

Maybe Suzanne Morrison is right in her understanding of Facebook as a space in which the frankly-expressed crassness of easy, ill-considered reaction is the normal currency.

Politicians and sports people lose their jobs for the remarks they make on Twitter. They arrive home from a bad day at work and with a couple of whiskies warming their innards and, before they go to bed, they fire off a tweet about the ref or the boss or the Prime Minister and thousands read it before they wake up in the morning, having forgotten that they have even written it. And then the roof comes in.

Yet nearly all of the people who read it understood it as a category of informal opinion closer to what we might freely say among friends in exasperation than to the considered formal positions we would rationally defend.

In future, we will all accept that distinction, or we will all, in time, violate the rules that currently apply to opinion that seems to come easy, but ends up costing us dear.

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