Cowards, bullies and ‘freedom of speech’ online … the X Factor and its moral responsibility to right its wrongs

The X Factor is over and it will be left for the media and commentators to pick through the debris. As part of this process, we must not overlook the opportunity to take a long, hard look at the moral responsibility shows like the X Factor have in what they do, and especially in the kind of behaviour they encourage in others. A prime example of this is in their spin-off activities, including online gossip and comment. At the beginning of last Saturday’s X Factor, a simple line came up on the screen – #XFactor. This was a clear invitation to viewers to follow comments being made by other viewers on Twitter, and out of curiosity, I did – and I found the experience (which I kept a short-lived one) depressing and, in parts, shocking. These were my observations:

  1. The number of comments was overwhelming – around 50 a second at times, it felt. While the intention of the promotion of the Twitter feed was – I imagine – to add a further interactive dimension to the show, the consequence was that you could easily end up missing the show while you drowned in tweets. A more self-defeating activity I cannot imagine.
  2. The vast majority of the tweets were inane, sent by strangers to be viewed by strangers. While I applaud the concept of society connecting more closely, there is little point in this happening through inanity. Surely we should be seeking to combine our forces more positively.
  3. A number of tweets were pithy, contributed to the discussion about the merits of the singers and were interesting. They did of course also, however, perpetuate the fundamental issue I have with the concept of the X Factor, namely that it encourages a mindset in society that open criticism of others is ok (it isn’t), and it sets young people up for painful personal criticism without giving them the psychological support and grounding to help them cope with this.
  4. Some tweets were cruel, pointedly rude about individuals and some were shockingly sexist and racist. They were bullying and they were cowardly, hiding behind the anonymity that the internet provides. All this I found totally unacceptable. We should not be accepting of this kind of behaviour; moreover, we have clearly failed in our society both in educating people to know how to write and behave online (so that they can self-regulate – always the first port of call in a free society), and in providing a regulatory framework that prevents this kind of harmful behaviour, or provides for consequences (knowledge of which again helps people to self-regulate).

I would like to think that the promotion of the Twitter feed by the X Factor team was done from worthy motives, to ‘enhance the viewer experience’ … although I do question the morality of the show in its entirety, and whether therefore it is even morally right to consider enhancing the viewing experience. I harbour a suspicion that – especially as it was something that could in no way be controlled by the production team – it was planned to promote controversy and provoke reaction. They will have known the type of comments that had been made on previous weeks; they knew what they were doing. In fact, what they have done is to become complicit in cruelty, harm, sexism and racism.

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) recognises the right to freedom of expression as a human right, and freedom of speech or expression is also recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Article 19 of this International Covenant states that “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

Article 19 goes on to say, however, that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”. We seem to have lost sight of this almost entirely in our dealings with online media; we have abdicated our responsibility, and we need to do something about it. Bottom-up education of children (and adults) on the responsibilities that come with rights must be combined with top-down clear legal frameworks that provide for appropriate admonition when people are harmful to other people. We have been left behind by this technology and we have to get on top of it. Freedom of opinion is good; freedom to harm others verbally is downright wrong, and we have to grapple with the fine line that can exist between the two.

We have to do something about so-called ‘freedom of speech’ which has the potential to vilify and harm people. This is not worthy of human beings in a civilised world; it is not right, and we should be prepared to do something about it. It is no excuse to hide behind the fact that the technology is out there, and it will be used regardless of regulation; we invented the technology – now we need to develop the wisdom to ensure that it is used in a way that does not harm.

My rule of thumb – if what I write is something I would think was rude or harmful if I said it face-to-face, then I will not write it. Do I always get it right? Of course not – but I try, and I learn, and I apologise if I have got it wrong. I know that this is what we are teaching in school. At the moment, though, it seems, there is no ‘rule of thumb’ guidance for the vast majority of the populace. We have to put this right – and shows like the X Factor need to face up to their responsibility.

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