What's the difference between saying what you think and bullying?
Between listening to the will of the people and creating a society that acts on the basest human instincts? These questions, and ones about the influence of the internet on how people behave, became more pressing last week when the Government invited the public to post e-petitions on a new website. The result was an unthinking person's dream: instant demands to bring back hanging, withdraw from the EU, allow householders to bludgeon burglars to death, repeal the Human Rights Act, and stop "mass" immigration.
It was an unwelcome snapshot of what life might be like if e-democracy were to replace our parliamentary system. At the same time, the novelist Amanda Craig was dealing with torrents of online abuse after she published an article criticising her old school, Bedales, and the Dragons' Den entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne became the subject of a nasty online attempt at extortion. The threats came via email and the social networking site Twitter, where someone claiming to be from Belarus threatened to hurt Bannatyne's daughter unless he was paid £35,000. Bannatyne responded furiously, offering a reward of £50,000 to anyone who could capture the blackmailer and break his arms.
Craig was conscious of the irony that her recollections of being bullied at school had produced an outbreak of online bullying, but it became so intolerable that she eventually pointed out that the threats were a criminal matter. Even more astonishingly, she received abuse on her blog after she published an account of an assault outside her north London home which almost resulted in her losing the sight in one eye. Below a graphic photograph of the injury, someone calling herself "Jackki" launched into barely literate abuse: "you can tell your a story teller nearly all you wrote were lies ... yes you do have a sore eye but it was no where near as bad as you have made out".
It reads like an entry from Private Eye's "From the Message Boards", but that's true of many of the comments that appear on blogs, newspaper websites and Twitter. A similar tone made itself felt on the Government's e-petition website as people rushed to urge legislators to enact punitive measures, such as "make prison mean prison – bread and water that's it" (sic). In the first couple of days, the most popular subject for e-petitions accepted on to the site was the return of the death penalty, while the most frequently raised topic among rejected petitions (because they didn't meet the Government's criteria) seemed to be a call for F1 to appear on free-to-view TV channels.
The Government has promised that any legal e-petition which attracts 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament, but ministers have yet to explain how they will deal with the unrealistic hopes of campaigners. Capital punishment is outlawed by the Lisbon Treaty and the UK cannot reinstate it without leaving the EU; it is inconceivable that the Government would take such a step over a single issue. Ministers may feel that allowing the subject to be "aired" is a sufficient nod in the direction of popular sentiment, but they have embarked on a risky course, providing a respectable forum for a slew of unpleasant causes.
The internet is basically a delivery system and it has undeniably brought many benefits. But it has downsides, not least of which is the outlet it provides for a roiling stew of rage, envy and punitive impulses. Unlike a political speech, an academic paper or a column in a serious newspaper, comments on blogs and social networking sites tend to be fast, angry and unreflective. The instant response, characterised by misreadings, assumptions of bad faith and even threats of physical violence, has become the bane of the online world. Two weekends ago, some Twitter users registered their dismay when the death of Amy Winehouse produced a high volume of unfeeling tweets, but hurt more often goes unacknowledged.
Craig was sensible to respond robustly to bullying comments, because showing vulnerability encourages further abuse. Last week, Bannatyne had second thoughts about appearing to solicit violence via Twitter, substituting his original offer with a reward of £30,000 for information leading to an arrest. But moments of reflection are rare in cyberspace.
This online clamour does more than hurt individual feelings. At its worst, it is a form of hate speech, shot through with misogyny, homophobia and racism. Obviously, actual threats of violence should be dealt with by the police (who don't always take them seriously enough), but I'd like to hear much more loud disapproval of the nastiness that disfigures debate on the internet. It shouldn't be socially acceptable to direct a stream of abuse against someone online, any more than it is in the street, and we need to be clear that bullying isn't a bold exercise in free speech. I can see that anonymity may be a necessary safeguard for Twitter users in Syria or Libya, but pseudonymous posts should, as a rule, be discouraged on blogs and social networking sites.
Right-wing populism gets more of an airing than it deserves in this country, thanks to the political bias of newspapers and the assiduousness of reactionary bloggers. The two often work together, as happened last week when the Daily Mail hailed an e-petition to bring back capital punishment started by Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes. What happened next wasn't quite what they expected: a day after it went up, almost twice as many people had signed a rival e-petition calling for the ban on capital punishment to be retained.
Eighteen people supported a satirical e-petition calling for public hanging for those who propose public hanging, while almost 200 individuals urged MPs not to listen to "idiots signing e-petitions". This outburst of common sense, decency and scepticism is long overdue.