Is there really a solution to racism on Twitter?

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In the 1700s radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat used the power of his pen and his influence in the media as a vessel to channel his political passion and to rally the masses, in effect contributing greatly to the French revolution. Today, ‘Marat-figures’ take on different forms.

When social networks aren’t used as leverage to topple governments or to keep valuable relationships intact, they also serve as an everyday repository of information. Social networks have been cursed by a degree of responsibility towards the flow of information. To complicate matters even more, questions about anonymity, freedom of speech and hate-speech have become more and more relevant.

Social networks, in and of themselves, don’t cause hate-speech. They do however provide a platform where people who would otherwise not have had a voice can get a moment in the spotlight without the aid of traditional media.

Although many hide behind a veil of anonymity, tweets, posts and comments are in many cases interconnected and are relatively easy to track. As mentioned earlier this year by Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, the reason Twitter wants to encourage free speech is because “there are lots of places in the world where it’s the only way you’d be able to speak freely.” He also notes though that this “emboldens trolls.” And yes, you could serve a prison sentence for being a troll.

Trolling along with the newly-minted term “twacism” (referring to racism on Twitter), has been used to describe the immature and rash behavior of some internet users. As Costolo says, Twitter will start tackling this problem by using censorship based on the Twitter profile’s ‘authority’. This ‘authority’ would be measured by the absence of a profile picture, a bio and the lack of followers.

Because tweets spread like wildfire they make easy targets for news headlines. For example, the aggressive attacks on South African opposition leader Helen Zille’s tweets, concerning her allegedly racist remarks, the tweet about the South African presidency’s discontent in missing an episode of the Idols singing competition, more recent and prominent, the bombardment of the former English football player Stan Collymore.

‘Twacists’ or ‘trolls’ can be spotted miles away by their automatistic behaviour or simply their need to cause emotional damage. They’re being punished for it too. In England, more than 2 000 prosecutions were recorded in 2011. Questions about freedom of speech and anonymity are being raised and as one commentator simply put it: “Why does being a dick mean you actually get jail time?”

More measures toward hate-speech have been taken around the world by the service providers. In Kenya for example, Bob Collymore, CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile operator Safaricom, has said that the company would disconnect subscribers who are spreading or promoting hate speech. He notes that unlike the previous 2007 election, today “information spreads so fast but we have instruments to keep vigil on that complexity.”

Censorship is a dirty word. We have seen it used by governments, social networks and other platforms. This reliance on the need to curb the content flow on the internet could become a slippery slope. How should a person’s freedom of expression be measured and where are the lines to be drawn between the responsibility to protect and the legitimacy of information flow? Who exactly are the Marat-figures of our age?

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