Belfast Telegraph

The freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins

The leaking of Facebook's guidelines on threatening behaviour has reopened the debate on the issue of censorship. But, for Malachi O'Doherty, it's personal

One day, when I was about 12, I was with a group of friends playing about in Colin Glen when we found a copy of a naturist magazine. Someone had discarded it in that peaceful and beautiful place and, suddenly, I was more interested in the colour pictures than in the woodland around me. For they were all of nudes.

People were playing tennis in the nude, or prancing about on beaches and fields. These were not nudes as you would find them today in a thousand internet contexts from the medical to fine art or pornography. They were coyly presented nudes, showing more than was customary at the time in mainstream magazines or television, but less than would alarm or surprise most people today.

I have upstairs a copy of Playboy magazine from 1972, which I kept for its interview with Bernadette Devlin, and even there one can see that the rules of acceptability were being stretched, but not broken. The camera might point directly at the loins, but then these would be so profusely hirsute that no detail was visible.

I recall also changes in the degree of violence that might be shown on screen. There was a new cowboy series on Friday nights called Frontier, which promised greater realism, distinguishing it from the type in which people got shot and fell over but didn't bleed. The film Soldier Blue was another Western that offered more gore than the Lone Ranger ever encountered.

As far as ill-mannered political debate was concerned, we got that from UTV, chaired by Gordon Burns, and with Ian Paisley occasionally obliging our lust for drama by tearing off his microphone and storming out of the studio while shouting over his shoulder at Gerry Fitt.

These were innocent times in the media, if not out on the street, where the blood was real and the anger raw and threatening.

Then, suddenly, the world changed. The street had come indoors. There was a buffer, then, between the medium and the audience.

There were gatekeepers, who could decide what rude vocabulary we could hear, how much flesh we could see, how bloody the cowboys or the Nazis could be.

In broadcasting and publishing, those gatekeepers are still at work, maintaining standards of decency and civility, but they have little control over the huge expansion of the alternative media, the internet.

Now you don't have to be a trained camera operator or journalist to create content and offer it to the world. The BBC has volumes of guidelines on correct standards, but they don't apply to the amateur pornographer, the shocker and the political activists making their own platform. Still less do they apply to the paedophile and the jihadi urging others to join in the killing of infidels.

This has been an exhilarating step in human culture, the instant access to an infinite diversity of material and the opportunity to make our own.

But aren't gatekeepers needed here, too? One of the surprises of the internet is how inviting it is to the abusive.

Newspaper articles that once attracted just a few letters, if any, to the paper itself from those who were impassioned enough to find paper and buy a stamp, who could sustain their rage until they reached a letterbox, now may draw floods of insulting comment. Almost every day on Facebook, someone will tell me that I am "f****** stupid".

That's mild. Other journalists are getting the same, as are politicians, artists, anyone with a profile.

The photographer Sean Tucker recently made a video for YouTube describing the abuse he gets for simple, elegant little films showcasing his work and providing free tutorials.

Tucker is one of the most unabrasive and civil voices on YouTube, yet he gets sneered at.

It seems that if you make yourself visible at all somebody will want to step up behind the shield of a pseudonym and insult you. It is not possible to have a public profile now without subjecting yourself to abuse and we just have to get used to it.

Yesterday The Guardian newspaper revealed the workings of the Facebook gatekeepers, the guidelines by which they censor the most offensive content.

Facebook has long resisted being regarded as a publisher and has tried to be as open as possible. In this it has resisted the law in some countries.

Thailand last week threatened to close Facebook if it continued to allow insults of the king.

One of the assessments its monitors have to make is whether an expressed threat is or is not meant to be taken seriously. In 2010 Paul Chambers, a Northern Ireland man living in Doncaster, expressed his frustration at Robin Hood Airport being closed by snow, saying he would bomb it if it wasn't open in an hour.

He was charged and convicted of sending a "menacing electronic communication".

The High Court overturned this on the basis that, if people just read it as a joke, then the words could not be regarded as menacing. That was a sensible ruling, and no one who had read Paul Chambers's tweet would have thought he was likely to actually bomb the airport. But airports are being bombed. The tweet, while not constituting an actual threat, was insensitive to a degree that would have made it an unacceptable joke in most broadcast media.

Now, Facebook employees have the job of making distinctions every day between comments that carry a real threat of violence and comments which are merely atrociously insulting and unnerving.

They also have to implement guidelines on obscenity, which cope poorly with the inevitable exceptions to plain literal rules, as when they removed the famous and widespread picture of a Vietnamese child running naked from a napalm bombing.

I have to make those judgments, too. We all do. I was recently approached by a man who had threatened on Facebook to punch me in the face the next time we met. I think he did actually intend that he would do that, when he wrote it, but he had had time to reflect on it and he apologised, which was decent of him.

Another said I should have my "legs done", or - "better still" - my mouth. And friends reassure me that, of course, this is just some lout slabbering. But insults hurt, too, and it is in the middle of that hurt that you have to decide how less safe you really are now.

These are the judgment calls we all make now, routinely, if we have a social media profile.

So, the monitors on Facebook say, these are complex and difficult judgments.

Tell me about it.

Belfast Telegraph


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