Two cheers for Cyberspace?

I’ve been brooding for days on whether the Trafigura episode and the Jan Moir/Gateley storm actually marked a serious phase-change in our media ecosystem — and, if so, what it might mean for the future. This morning, it occurred to me that the current furore about Stephen Fry’s ‘second thoughts’ about Twitter might provide a useful entry point to the conundrum.

Stir Fry

The trail (for me, at any rate) starts with a Guardian report that Stephen Fry was contemplating giving up Twitter (on which he has, at the time of writing this, 930,835 followers). “”Think I may have to give up on Twitter”, he tweeted. “Too much aggression and unkindness around.” In a reply to one of those unkind tweets, he replied: “You’ve convinced me. I’m obviously not good enough. I retire from Twitter henceforward. Bye everyone.”

This caused a stir and of course was picked up by the mainstream media (for whom Twitter is currently the scandal du jour. I decided to see what Fry himself had to say about this and headed over to his blog, where I found a long, reflective, thought-provoking and sobering post entitled “Poles, Politeness and Politics in the Age of Twitter”.

He begins, intriguingly, by saying that he feels sorry for Jan Moir, the Daily Mail columnist whose comments on the death of the gay Boyzone singer, Stephen Gateley, provoked an online storm that (briefly) overwhelmed the website of the Press Complaints Commission. Fry himself had probably contributed to the storm, because he had sent a critical tweet about the Moir piece shortly after it appeared, and given the number of followers he has on Twitter, anything he says is likely to be amplified accordingly. (Many moons ago, a tweet of his about the Blackberry Storm had effectively closed off the geek market to that particular phone. In that case, as with almost any other technology issue that he pronounces upon, Fry was absolutely right: the Storm was rushed out too early to compete with the iPhone. It was a buggy and incomplete product and his verdict was spot-on.)

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Moir story is that several major advertisers, notably Marks & Spencer (Middle England’s favourite department store), reportedly informed the Mail that they didn’t wish their advertisements to appear on the same page as Moir’s column. If true, this was a very significant development: it suggested that online indignation could metamorphosed into a force that could hit media organisations in the one place that really hurts — their advertising revenues.

Fry’s empathy with the Daily Mail columnist turns out to be a product of his own, more recent, experience. “If I were to express sympathy for Jan Moir here”, he writes,

“some of you might think I had gone soft in the head. And yet I do feel sorry for her. … The reason I feel sorry for her is not that she is a journalist, or that she writes for the Daily Mail, I am quite sure she can do without my pompous, patronising sympathy. I feel sorry for her because I know just what it is like to make a monumental ass of oneself and how hard it is to find the road back. I know all too well what it is like to be inebriated, as Disraeli put it, by the exuberance of my own verbosity.”

What caused this change of heart was that Fry agreed to be interviewed by Channel 4 News about the Tory party’s decision to ally itself in the European Parliament with fringe right-wing parties, mainly from the former Soviet Bloc, which are openly or covertly imbued with homophobic and/or anti-semitic views. One such is the quaintly-named “Polish Law and Justice Party”. He accepted the invitation to appear “for the achingly dumb reason” that he

“happened to be in the Holborn area all that day and the ITN news studios were just round the corner, so it seemed like an easy gig. The more probable explanation is that, as my father and squadrons of school teachers correctly reminded me throughout my childhood and youth, ‘Stephen just doesn’t think.’ Anyway. Words tumbled from my lips during that interview that were as idiotic, ignorant and offensive as you could imagine. It had all been proceeding along perfectly acceptable lines until I said something like ‘let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on’.”

At this point, anyone who’s ever done a live broadcast interview will feel a shiver of sympathetic recognition. We’ve all said silly thing on the spur of the moment, but usually it isn’t until the adrenalin rush of the interview has worn off that one realises. Anyway, to continue Fry’s account:

“I mean, what was I thinking? Well, as I say, I wasn’t. The words just formed themselves in a line in my head, as words will, and marched out of the mouth. I offer no excuse. I seemed to imply that the Polish people had been responsible for the most infamous of all the death factories of the Third Reich. I didn’t even really at the time notice the import of what I had said, so gave myself no opportunity instantly to retract the statement. It was a rubbishy, cheap and offensive remark that I have been regretting ever since.”

And he goes on to apologise:

“I take this opportunity to apologise now. I said a stupid, thoughtless and fatuous thing. It detracted from and devalued my argument, such as it was, and it outraged and offended a large group of people for no very good reason. I am sorry in all directions, and all the more sorry because it is no one’s fault but my own, which always makes it so much worse. And sorry because I didn’t have the wit, style, grace or guts to apologise at the first opportunity. I don’t know if Jan Moir feels the same, but I am pretty sure that in her heart of hearts she will have at the very least yearned for a rewind button. How many times in her mind since must she have rephrased, reworded and rejigged that sorry and squalid little article?

But all of this came too late. What Fry then experienced was the downside of online life — the fact that one can become the target for a tidal wave of offensive, even savage, attack. Britain’s best-loved comedian and media figure suddenly found himself up to his eyes in the nastiest kind of cesspit. And much of it came via his Twitterstream.

The toxic injunction

By now, the story is well known. The Economist’s summary of it opens thus:

“This week a national newspaper ran a fascinating story about absolutely nothing. The Guardian reported on its front page on October 13th that a question had been tabled by an MP in Parliament, but that the newspaper could not reveal “who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found”. The reason, it explained no less cryptically, was that “legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret”.

This cunningly allusive item (echoed in a tweet from the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger), rapidly piqued the curiosity of the Twitterverse and in a short time the details became clear. Guardian journalists had been sniffing round a story that agents of a shipping company, Trafigura, had dumped toxic waste off the coast of an African country. This had, allegedly, caused health problems for the unfortunate residents of that country, as a result of which the company had paid compensation. But the journalists had also discovered that the company had commissioned a consultant’s report into the episode which suggested that it had known about the hazards posed by the dumped cargo. Lawyers acting for Trafigura then obtained a court injunction banning the paper from mentioning the report. They then obtained what is known as a “super injunction” banning the paper from reporting even the existence of the first injunction. At some point in the saga, an MP, Paul Farrelly, tabled a Parliamentary Question about all this, but the super injunction apparently precluded the Guardian from even reporting this fact.

Once the online community got hold of the story the entire legal edifice crumbled, especially when it became clear that the lawyers had effectively been attempting to constrain the near-absolute privilege of Parliamentary proceedings. At this point, even the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, got into the act. Speaking “entirely personally”, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, he said that he

“simply cannot envisage that it would be constitutionally possible, or proper, for a court to make an order which might prevent or hinder or limit discussion of any topic in Parliament. Or that any judge would intentionally formulate an injunction which would purport to have that effect… We use the words ‘fundamental principle’ very frequently, but this is a fundamental principle. The absolute privilege for Members to speak freely in Parliament did not come without a price, and previous generations fought – and indeed died – for it. It is a very precious heritage which should be vigorously maintained and defended by this generation.

“There are clear conventions about the circumstances in which Parliament will or will not discuss proceedings in court, and I have no doubt these conventions will be followed so as to avoid any possible interference with the administration of justice.”

Although the Lord Chief Justice did not rule out the use of super-injunctions in principle, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Trafigura case represented a milestone of some sort. In a pre-Internet world, British court injunctions had often been used as effective gags on reporting (think, for example, of the Spycatcher case in the 1980s); now it looked as though the era when powerful companies and instutions would be able to use the courts to gag the media might be coming to an end. And the Moir/Gateley fracas showed even the mighty Daily Mail might be held to account for the ideologically-warped falsehoods and half-truths that it regularly peddles.

Or, as Stephen Fry put it:

Maybe the age of politics as we knew and loved it is over. Maybe the two twitterstorms of last week point to a new kind of democracy. L’Affaire Moir followed hard on the heels of a quite horrific attempt to muzzle the press by the lawyers Carter-Ruck. In the name of sub judice this notorious law firm slapped a ‘superinjunction’ on The Guardian newspaper forbidding them to mention the name of an MP or the question he had tabled in Parliament on the Trafigura toxic waste dumping scandal. Six hours of TwitterIndignation later, during which time every censored detail was made freely available for all to see, and the injunction was, force majeure, lifted. The internet had hobbled it fatally and it was led limping back to its stall, to the jeers and cheers of the public.

So, hurrah! for freedom and democracy?

Well, maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Here are some reasons for being sceptical.

1. Utopianism and its discontents

The history of Cyberspace is littered with false dawns and the dust of exploded dreams. In the early days many of us (me included) were what one might call technological utopians: we really thought that networked technology would revolutionise the world. Remember John Perry Barlow’s ‘Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’?

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract . This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.”

Heady stuff, eh? Underlying it was our confidence that technology gave us the upper hand. Take encryption. Prior to the invention of public-key cryptography, powerful encryption was the exclusive preserve of those “weary giants of flesh and steel”, particularly governments. But then Phil Zimmermann created PGP and suddenly we could all protect our communications in a way that made them effectively opaque even to the National Security Agency — which is one of the reasons why the US government originally defined PGP as a munition and therefore something that could not be exported from the United States. But there was a loophole: although electronic versions of the PGP code were proscribed in this way, the printout wasn’t — so that listings of the code were freely available everywhere (even in the University Library in Cambridge, where I first came across it.)

Hooray? Not quite. PGP did indeed work as advertised. It did enable one to make one’s emails and documents unreadable by anyone who did not possess the key. But we overlooked one simple thing — that governments have the power to pass laws which apply to anyone living in their jurisdictions. Thus the UK government in 2000 passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), one of whose clauses gave the Home Secretary (aka the Minister of the Interior) the authority to demand that anyone whose encrypted communications were deemed by him (or his agents) to be interesting (on various grounds including national security, detection of organised crime or even national economic interests) should disclose the encryption key or face the prospect of two years in prison. So although the power of PGP technology to maintain the confidentiality of one’s documents was unchanged in principle, in practice the security that it offered proved illusory. For most people the threat of two years in gaol effectively nullified the power of the technology.

Then there was the false confidence engendered by the famous dictum of John Gilmore that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. Again, true in principle. But it led us to gravely underestimate the power of governments to control their citizens’ access to networked information. Gilmore didn’t foresee, for example, the lengths to which authoritarian regimes in China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere would go to ensure that unwelcome content would not be viewed within their jurisdictions. Or the success that their censorship policies would enjoy. Likewise for private censoring of the Web even in democratic societies. In the UK, for example, the precedent set by the Demon Internet case meant that if you wished to have an offending website taken down all you needed to do is have a lawyer write a threatening letter to the ISP hosting the site and in most cases the ISP would comply immediately, without even bothering to examine the validity of the lawyer’s claim.

2. Mob psychology: or when is a crowd wise?

The most exciting thing about the Net is that it gives us a way of harnessing the collective IQ of the planet. It enables minds to connect and interact with one another in the most extraordinary ways. All kinds of examples come to mind — from the explosion of creative writing and thinking in the blogosphere, to vast collective endeavours like Wikipedia which wouild have been unthinkable in a pre-Internet world, to the astonishing evidence of widespread visual creativity on Flickr. And in turn this has led to a lot of commentary about the so-called ‘wisdom of crowds’ — the phrase that James Surowiecki used for the title of his best-selling book, and the phenomenon of ‘flash mobs’ — defined by Wikipedia (where else?) as “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse”. What’s significant about much of the writing on this subject is its optimistic, benevolent tone: “From cricket to fuel prices, our collective instinct invariably strikes the right note”, writes the economic commentator, Will Hutton.

But there is a downside to this: not every crowd is wise, and mob psychology seems to have deep roots in human psychology. And the problem is that, in a way, the Internet is agnostic about the uses to which it is put. It can be used to harness the collective IQ of the world for positive ends. But it can also be used to spread falsehoods and panic at the speed of light.

Up to now, the uses to which it has been put have been largely benign, at least when viewed from a liberal mindset. Obama’s election, for example, was due in part at least to his supporters’ skills at using the network to organise and fund the huge collective effort needed to get him elected — and to the Republicans’ relative ineptitude with online tools. The Twitter-powered effort that unravelled the legal cloak behind Trafigura’s toxic waste scandal seemed likewise to be in the public interest. The online storm that beset Jan Moir and the Daily Mail brought cheer to many a liberal heart. But can the same be said for the outpouring of abuse and worse that has unmanned Stephen Fry? If you’re a homophone or an antisemite or a racist, on the other hand, you might say that the guy got what he deserved.

Or, to take another case, the BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson. In addition to his mainstream reporting, he writes a terrific blog which is required reading for anyone who wants to see the fine grain of Westminster politics. But at a recent event hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Robinson revealed that he was so dispirited by the abusiveness and inanity of those who post comments on his blog that he has given up reading them. The same experience is reported by some journalists who publish on the Guardian‘s Comment is Free site.

The legal scholar Cass Sunstein has an interesting take on this. In his book, he drew attention to a paradox — that the Internet, which in principle widens the range of opinions and experiences accessible to any networked individual, also offers unprecedented opportunities for filtering out uncomfortable or unacceptable views. Taken to its extreme, this leads to a dystopian vision of a society made up of large numbers of hermetically-sealed ‘echo chambers’ in which people interact only with those they feel comfortable with, and hear only what they want to hear. Among the downsides of this, Sunstein notes “the pervasive risk that discussion among like-minded people will breed excessive confidence, extremism, contempt for others, and sometimes even violence” and “the potentially dangerous role of social cascades, including ‘cybercascades’, in which information, whether true or false, spreads like wildfire”. We’ve already seen examples of the former in the online forums of right-wing Republicans in the US. And we will undoubtedly see a lot more of the latter in years to come.

3. The pollution of the commons

It’s been fascinating to watch the growth of Twitter. In the early days, it was pure delight: a playground for geeks and early-adopters. In many ways, it still is — at least for me: it gives me a way of plugging into the thoughtstreams of people who interest me and whose ideas are worth knowing about. But once the mainstream media discovered it, the the usual things happened: companies and their PR agencies wondering how they can exploit it to ‘build’ their brands; self-publicists seeking ways of increasing their exposure; and of course spammers and malware artists seeking ways to phish and extort.

But then this is also an old story. We saw it, for example, in News Groups — the original open discussion spaces of the early Internet. Once they were places where like-minded people engaged in discussion that was usually vigorous — sometimes very vigorous — but where, by and large, the rules of civilised discourse were observed. Then the space was invaded by the redneck hordes unleased onto the Net by AOL, and then by pornographers and spammers — and suddenly it was a place where one no longer wished to be.

Blogging emerged partly as a response to the pollution of the Newsgroup space. In a blog one can have one’s say and not feel compromised or intimidated by hostility. You own your own words, as Dave Winer used to say. But then the laudable desire to use the blogosphere as a discussion space took hold, and people began to allow commenting on their blogs — and in no time at all found themselves up to their eyes in the old cesspit of vicious, anonymous, attack-dog commenting with the result that any serious blogger was faced with two options: either spend a lot of time moderating comments to weed out the crap; or devise methods of social control — like requiring that all commenters provide a valid email address and maybe other forms of identification. And then, on top of all that, came the comment spam — deluges of it.

So there is a natural history of online communications, and Twitter is now entering the middle stages of it. Of course it may be that it escapes the normal degenerative path of such virtual spaces, but if it does then it will be a first.

4. A Fifth Estate?

In his Inaugural Lecture, Bill Dutton, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, argued that the Internet is becoming — if it has not already become — the ‘Fifth Estate’ of the realm. In his blog post, Stephen Fry has had the same thought:

“In the good old days there were Three Estates that held dominion over us. The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons. As the Press rose and cast off the shackles of censorship it became routinely referred to, after a remark made by Edmund Burke in the late eighteenth century, as the Fourth Estate.”

In the same week the Fourth Estate has been rescued by Twitter and shamed by Twitter he asks: “Has the twinternet now become the Fifth Estate? And if so is it safe in the hands of people like you and me? Especially me?”

“And what am I after all? What right have I to wield this kind of influence? A question people have been asking about journalists for years, but which they have every right to ask about me too. I don’t know what business I have wielding influence either. This whole thing has just grown up around me and now I cannot help wondering if … I have found myself in a new Fifth Estate political assembly, willy-nilly hailed as some sort of tribune by friendly people on one side and being yelled at by unfriendly people on the other. I am not cut out for the hurly-burly of adversarial politics. I am not qualified to represent anyone nor, I cannot repeat often enough, do I wish to. So I should shut up. That seems to be the only sensible thing to do. I should shut the fuck up.”

As it happens, I don’t think he should shut up. He’s a civilised, erudite and welcome citizen of Cyberspace, and I hope he opts to continue here.

LATER: Nick Cohen wrote an interesting column about the dangers of ‘hobmobs’.