Online debate: the new freedom of expression or an extremist playground?

The political leaders debates in the run-up to the 2010 UK general election were a huge ratings success and gained praise from commentators. At least part of this success lies in the preparation that went into them – the weeks of planning and bargaining between television executives, political spin doctors and broadcast regulators. Ultimately the finished product was a well structured and polished piece of journalism, with clear rules and boundaries as to what could be discussed and a format that left the public satisfied they had a better idea of who to vote for.

But this isn’t so in the world of Youtube.

The video sharing website has frequently been used as a host for online debate and, as with most online interaction, the typical bounds of social convention no longer seem to apply. The gloves come off and charged topics that people wouldn’t normally feel comfortable debating are fair game:

–         Religion

–         Extreme politics

–         Evolution vs Creationism

–         Vegetarianism/veganism

It’s all fair game. And all of them are discussed without the tact and manners that we’d normally expect in the real world.

On one hand we might see this as a welcome change – a chance for people to get to the heart of an issue without feeling bound in for fear of offending someone. But can this freedom go too far? Particularly when there are no controls on who joins the debate.

Take the case of VenomFangx (banned from Youtube at the time of writing).

A staunch critic of Evolution, Atheism and, pretty much any spiritual position besides his own, his feud with another youtuber ‘Thunderf00t’ became well known among the youtube community. However, a heated debate spilled over into dangerous territory when, in 2007 Venomfangx attempted to take legal action against Thunderf00t using the Digitial Millenium Copyright Act (a piece of US legislation).

The action failed, but the argument continued to sour, with Venomfangx threatening to release Thunderf00t’s personal details and releasing an increasingly bizarre series of videos attacking Thunderf00t. Users began to speculate that Venomfangx was not entirely of sound mind, a suspicion which seemed to be confirmed when his parents shut down his account and put up a message explaining what they had done and why.

This would have been the end of it, were it not for various accounts started by Venomfangx under false names, the continuation of his original account by one of his supporters and dozens, if not hundreds of responses and mirrors of deleted videos of the original arguments. The debate may have cooled, but it seems like it’s far from over.

This wouldn’t seem significant if we could write Venomfangx off as one eccentric loner whose actions didn’t have wide ranging consequences. After all, until I mentioned him in this post, how many of you had even heard of him?

But he isn’t alone. There are many others who get involved in these discussions and some whose actions are far more sinister.

Where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and open debate and regulating these discussions to protect the vulnerable in an arena where normal social rules do not seem to apply?

By Alan O’Doherty

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