Twitter Firestorms and Racial Abuse

The internet is the gift that keeps on giving for people who like getting upset about things that will never affect their lives. From its idealistic beginnings it quickly developed a seedy underworld where the freaks, the weirdos and the morally corrupt can gather, hidden from the watchful eyes of the more upstanding members of society by some cryptic username. And yet people are still surprised when on occasion whey bump into one of these reprobates on one of the busier highstreets of the internet like facebook or twitter.

Racism on the internet is nothing new, it just so happens that nowadays you don’t have to go looking for it. Instead of having to browse through hundreds of badly coded, amateurish websites filled with bile filled rants (and you can bet there are still millions of those) you can get your dose of racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest beamed directly into your newsfeed or twitter stream as the outrage of the day goes viral and fills your screen with hate for a few hours.
I don’t mean to make light of the problem, seeing things like: “are you still banging on about depression you boring old nigger get a life” directed at radio host Stan Collymore , or “fuck off powrotem do własnego kraju means fuck off back to your own country in polish lol” written on a facebook group called “british jobs for british workers” is never nice, but some people just aren’t.

The unpleasant fact is that some people are racist and there’s nothing you can do about it, some people are just that way. Some people do it quietly and others are rather more forceful in the application of their beliefs. But you can be certain that the people that are inclined to spout racism in public forums are exactly the kinds of people that will never change their ways.

There may be a certain encouragement for racists to verbally assault people on the internet because it’s easy and because they’re unlikely to face retribution but I think mostly they’re only expressing views that they might share with their friends in the pub. For them calling someone a n****r online as natural as shouting at the TV during X-factor or Question Time might be for you and me. What a lot of people seem to have failed to grasp is that where offensive comments may be overheard by a couple of people in real life, on the internet they’re overheard by the entire planet.

Take 5 minutes out of your day and you could probably find 10 people expressing opinions so vile they should be taken of the streets. Increasingly it seems the police are recognising that simply because abuse is typed instead of shouted it deserves the same attention, and are actually arresting people for online abuse. Police arrested two teenagers of racist abuse towards Sammy Ameobi back in November and one of the twitter users sending abuse to Stan Collymore was arrested last week. Apart from telling the site managers and in severe cases the police there isn’t an awful lot that can be done though.

While building up a twitter storm can lead to some successful prosecutions it does have the unintended consequence of making gaffes like the Diane Abbott or Ed Milliband racism accusations look even more fatuous. Far from highlighting the issues of ingrained racism in society it becomes a game of political point scoring.

Ed Milliband attempted to appear human by paying tribute to the Blockbusters presenter Bob Holness, or at least a “junior member of staff” acting on his behalf was, when he accidentally tweeted “blackbusters”. Milliband briefly enjoyed popularity as #blackbusters became a trending topic for the day.

Diane Abbott’s case is rather more serious but still amounts to little of substance. Abbot was having a discussion with the Journalist Bim Adewunmi who was making a point about generalisations in the media about “the black community” and “black community leaders” and how leaders are “out of touch with the black people they purport to represent”. Abbott imfamously replied “white people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game #tacticsasoldascolonialism”.

Many Conservative MPs and other right wing commentators quickly blew the situation out of all proportion and began calling for her resignation or even her incarceration under Section 17 to 29 of the Public Order Act which prohibits inciting inflammatory rumours about an ethnic group for the purpose of spreading racial discontent. This row was never over the content of the message, which although badly thought out does not have the vicious intent that some have attributed it.

Stupid, yes. Racist, probably no. It’s certainly nothing worse than we’ve seen in the past like when Tory councillor Gareth Compton tweeted that author, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown should be stoned to death or when Tory Welsh Assembly Member Alun Cairns called italians “greasy wops” on live TV. Although it may seem like an easy point for politicians to score against their opponents by publicly decrying blunders like those in the recent weeks, they miss the wider picture that it makes them look like spoilt children calling eachother names.

Racism, sexism and homophobia online is without a doubt a problem, but the tools that make it easy to do also make it easy to create a fuss out of nothing.

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