Do internet trolls deserve to face imprisonment?

NV: I empathise with the idea that the Internet should be lawless and that it is the embodiment of ‘Freedom of Speech’. However, it is abundantly clear that we should be held accountable. In fact, accountability and responsibility are fundamental to the existence of our modern society; otherwise there would be no incentive to follow the law.

WM: Everyone wants freedom of speech – for the viewpoints they like. It’s when viewpoints they dislike rear their heads that people start to change their tune pretty quickly. It is an ideal few disagree with yet fewer are actually willing to defend it.
NV: But as much freedom as we feel ourselves entitled to, we must not forget that our actions have repercussions. Maybe it is about time we collectively decided to grow up and accept that we should be responsible for what we say and do at all times. If you feel like the Internet is a place where you can vent your anger through abusive remarks, then perhaps you need a healthier way of dealing with anger instead of involving other people in it.

WM: The Internet is the home of free speech in the modern world. It’s a place where physical force is useless and people from another side the world can connect in relative anonymity. A place where dissidents can express their viewpoints without the fear of retribution. It is the perfect opportunity, the perfect vessel, for free opinion. However, the Internet is not free; it’s at war. Countries such as China, Russia and Turkey limit access to material that they deem inappropriate or offensive to their citizens.

NV: The internet may be free of physical violence, but the world is not. What we take as “politically incorrect”, can be truly offensive for some people. In 2006, a Danish cartoonist suffered an attempt on his life due to cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. What we consider provocative or forward-thinking is to some people an insult to the core of their very being. And when published on the Internet, where access is free and unregulated, the dangers are great.

WM: The term offensive by itself means very little. The difference between what makes a comment acceptable or “offensive” is entirely dependent on the cultural context in which it was written. What is offensive other than that which whoever is in charge at the given time disapproves of? Depending on the norms of the day, nearly anything can be deemed offensive. Rather “offensive” in modern parlance is most often used to merely signify viewpoints held by other people rather than oneself.

NV: This is exactly the problem. The potential for harm on the Internet, through the creation of social tensions and anger is much greater than anywhere else. When you don’t know who your audience is, you can’t express yourself in an appropriate way. What is worse, when you think there is no possible danger to you, you have no incentive to do so.

WM: Do people take advantage of this anonymity? Of course they do. Once the shackles of social norms and fear of punishment come away, the most ghoulish and uneducated of opinions seem to rear their heads, and cruellest and most insensitive sides of people get shown.

NV: The Internet in our generation has become a prominent part of our society, so it is understandable that there is a discrepancy because it is vital that there is substantial evidence to back up higher jail sentences. Perhaps in the future things will turn further, seeing as when you write something in an online forum it is accessible to far more people, whilst verbal hate speech has a much more limited audience.

WM: But our freedom to speak is a freedom that we should be careful to give up. When we start censoring our voices on the basis of moral value we are greasing up a slippery slope towards tyranny. A clear line should be drawn between what is “trolling”, what is tasteless humour, and what is merely unpopular opinion badly phrased. We have to distinguish between what is hate speech and what is merely radical opinion. The majority of these trolls are merely provocateurs, revelling in the freedom that the medium gives them, with children and the mentally ill heavily represented amongst them. The answer to internet trolling must be much simpler and mundane, coming from within publications, they can place stricter moderation on what you can and can’t say before the law has to get involved. Taking steps towards opening up the Internet as a forum for debate as opposed to cesspit of distasteful, intentionally hurtful nonsense.

NV: If you can agree that we should be held accountable for our actions, the question that remains is whether 2 years in jail is fair for Internet hate speech. Verbal hate speech has a variety of maximum jail sentences, but specifically threatening to kill will lead to up to 10 years in jail. The only difference between verbal abuse and online abuse is the form in which it’s expressed, so then why does a comparatively measly 2-year jail sentence attract so much attention? Ideally both forms of abuse should be treated equally.

Will McCurdy
Will McCurdy is currently Managing Director of York Vision. He has previously served as Music Editor, Stage editor and Deputy Comment.