I hope we swim up out of this flood… How can we clean up new social media when we can’t clean up the old? #twittersilence

Part of this entry is going to seem ridiculous.  A straight, white, conservative male is about to complain of receiving threatening telephone calls.

‘Boohoo,’ you might say.  ‘Each day, thousands of women receive death threats, rape threats, and all kinds of other harassment over the Internet, over telephones, in person, and everywhere else.’

And you’d have a point.  This article isn’t my entry into the Harassed Olympics.  This is instead an article about the way social media has inherited deep systemic problems from yesterday’s telecommunication.

On Monday night, I was watching old episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender — because it’s awesome — when my phone rang.  A friend of the family had died a few days earlier and I was expecting a call telling me when the funeral would be held.  The call was from a private number.


‘Yeah.  G’day.’

‘Hi…?  Who is this?’

It clearly wasn’t a member of my family.  Indeed, I didn’t recognise the voice at all.

‘You know who this is.’

Perhaps it was a friend whose voice I didn’t recognise?  Sure, the voice wasn’t in any way friendly and seemed kind of aggressive, but that could describe all numbers of my friends.  I tried again to ask who it was; again, I wasn’t given any information.

I then asked if they had the right number.

‘Yeah, I’ve got your number.’

Being the good natured fellow that I am, I just thought they had the wrong number.  It’s an idiotic assumption — my voice is quite distinctive and if you’re not expecting to speak to me, it’s unlikely that you’d continue a conversation with me in error.  I suggested again that they might have the wrong number.

‘Have you got your clothes on?’

… say what?  What then followed was a particularly strange account of how the person on the other end of the phone wanted to rape me until I enjoyed it.

I hung up.

About a minute later, the phone rang again.  ‘Don’t hang up on me, you fuck.’

I hung up again.  When the phone rang again, I flicked it to silent.  They tried again a few more times.

There are more than a few people in the world who are insanely annoyed at me for a wide variety of reasons.  I’m used to people completely losing their custard and issuing all kinds of threats.  What I wasn’t used to was somebody having my phone and being quite so blasé in their threat.

The Commonwealth Criminal Code has a few relevant provisions:

474.15   Using a carriage service to make a threat

(2)  A person (the first person ) is guilty of an offence if:

(a) the first person uses a carriage service to make to another person (the second person ) a threat to cause serious harm to the second person or a third person; and

(b) the first person intends the second person to fear that the threat will be carried out.

So that’s a bit hazy.  They might have just intended it to be a joke.  Fortunately, there’s this provision:

474.17 Using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if:

(a) the person uses a carriage service; and

(b) the person does so in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.

It’s pretty obvious that rape threats would be considered by reasonable persons to be menacing or, at the very least, offensive.

So I figured I’d report it to my phone company.  I couldn’t find relevant details on their website so sent them a message over Twitter.  They told me that if it lasted more than a day, to let them know via their contact webform.

Two days later, a private number rang my phone.  I answered it — same person just shouting at me.  I used the webform to report the behaviour to my phone carrier.

Mind!  I’m not talking about trolling here.  I’m talking about abuse.  If the person had called me up and tried to flame me with irritating comments about logical positivism being defensible, I would have rolled with it.  Calling me up and threatening to rape me isn’t trolling me.

Back this up to a different conversation.  When Australia was discussing the Human Rights and Anti-discrimination Bill 2012, I was told that the Bill went ‘too far’ because there was ‘no right not to be offended’.  My argument was (and still is) that everybody should feel that they can participate equally in society and that offensive speech reduces the ability of people to participate equally in society.  If there isn’t a right not to be offended, we should fix the legislation to create that right.  When it’s directed towards women, it is nearly always an attempt to intimidate them out of public debate.  I’m not sure what it means when it’s directed towards guys.  Put another way, forget about the Human Rights and Anti-discrimination part, we should in general believe that there is a right not to be offended by behaviour like this.

Yesterday, I received a call from one of their customer service people.  She was very professional and a great person, but all that she could suggest was that I change my telephone number so that they are unable to contact me.

Wait…  What?

Over on Twitter, we see the same attitude at play.  If you receive abusive messages, Twitter states that you should block the person.  The responsibility rests with the recipient of the messages to change their behaviour in some way.  With the phone example, because some spunkerchief with a telephone connection somehow got my number and used it to make threats, I have to deal with the chaos and mayhem of getting a new telephone number.

No wonder we can’t get our attitude right on Twitter and Facesbook.  This is an Old World problem finding a new environment in which to express itself.  Everybody should be permitted to say whatever they like with as few restrictions; if you have a problem with what they are saying, it’s your problem to fix.

There’s absolutely no reason why people can’t be held responsible for their abusive telephone calls or their abusive tweets.  We have the technology.  The only reason we don’t go down that path is because people are still hung up over their 18th Century theories about freedoms, liberties, and rights.  It’s time to scrap the ‘Freedom of Speech’ argument and wipe out the abuse.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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