Stephen Birrell and Facebook Hate

There is a very quiet page on Facebook called ‘Free Stephen Birrell’.  There may be a few legal or human rights reasons that Birrell, sentenced for eight months this week for posting hate messages about Celtic boss Neil Lennon on Facebook, should be freed, but of course he won’t, and maybe that’s why at present, only one person ‘Likes’ this page.

There are few in the country who agree with Stephen Birrell’s opinions, and that includes myself.  But when I heard the case reported on Radio Scotland, which broadcast some choice quotes from Birrell, I wondered: what is the exact difference between Radio Scotland reading these hate messages out as part of a news item, and having them posted on a Facebook page that few of us would ever look at?

Although context is key, it is possible that Birrell had one last smile as he was shipped (back) to prison; his hate messages have now been received world-wide broadcast, and hearing them in BBC RP is particularly surreal.

My own shock at this story is that I have seen and read many worse things on the internet. I bet you have too.  Millions of computer users will be able to tell Birrell that his big mistake was using Facebook to begin with, because it was Facebook that ‘owned’ his opinions and thus allowed him to be daubed in.

We all know by now that the internet is a mighty sewer filled with hate, porn and lies, but because this is Facebook, and because Birrell is an easy target (working class / ex-con) and because Scotland is a general ferment about sectarianism anyway, his case was a knee-jerk reaction waiting to happen.

Based on this case however, if I were to be judge, jury and sentencer, I could spend the rest of this year and probably the rest of my life searching Facebook and other sites, and lock up an almost unlimited amount of people who are mouthing off, or posting comments that may be better shared down the pub.  Even without looking too hard, you will find on Facebook Islamic Hate groups, Police Hate groups, groups that hate fat people, Americans, Protestants  — and oh God the list goes on and on.   And yes, they should probably all just get off Facebook and leave it for those who want to share photos of their cat/lunch/kids — because I think that is what the underlying message is here:  Facebook as state and corporate power versus Open Source as people power and free speech.

The issue with Facebook is that the software and the information is not owned by the users and so freedom of speech is simply not possible.  Social networks such as Crabgrass (which is good for social activism as there is no corporate body to hand your plans over to the state — just other users) are decentralised and are run with no private authority, using free network services, which run open source (free) software.

Whatever you may wish to argue, Facebook is not free; there is a heavy price to pay in our being bombarded with adverts and with our details becoming the private possession of somebody else.  And Big Brother has never been so real as He is in this case.

I wouldn’t recommend Crabgrass to guys like Birrell; they would be run off the server by other users; but having said that there are numerous places on the net where you can safely post what you like, and where views go unmoderated.  I am wondering now; what if Birrell had posted his views on a message board like 4chan, and then linked those to Facebook?  And if you don’t know what 4chan is, make sure you have a stiff drink or sedative to hand before you look at it.

I don’t know if linking to views is as bad as expressing them yourself, or anonymously. But what I do know is that what is posted on Facebook stays on Facebook; by which I mean you cannot delete it.  You can’t even delete your account and all the information it has gathered about you; because it is not yours any more.

This is why religious hate groups, very like paedophiles, have their own federated computer networks and social media sites, and there of course, they can post as they please to their constituent audience.  As a Facebook user (or ‘employee’ as I like to call them) Stephen Birrell’s abuse became theirs and the silly boy signed his own execution warrant by saying what he did.

Yeah, Birrell got what he deserved, I won’t argue with the chattering classes on that one, simply because it’s not the issue.  But just watch what you say if you’re feeling angry about anything from climate change to corporate greed.  If somebody considers it to be nae nice — well don’t say you were not warned.

If you would like to know more about alternative and federated social web services, here are a few to have a look at:

Crabgrass –

StatusNet –

MediaGoblin –

GNU social –

Apache Wave –

Diaspora –

More –

Comments (9)

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  1. You can actually delete your Facebook account, though it’s not easy –

    I set up an account about 3 years ago; after a couple of weeks I was bored with folk I don’t even know third-hand far less mere acquaintances wanting to “befriend” me; reading what folk were planning to have for dinner, and worst of all, having targeted adverts from everything to Doctor Who action figures to Blu-Ray format operas which could only have been promoted through buying a couple of books, DVDs and CDs via Amazon.

    1. Thanks for the link John, that’s of interest.

  2. milgram says:

    I like my FOSS and Diaspora and Crabgrass, but isn’t the bigger issue that folk are getting jailed for what are essentially thought crimes?

    To borrow a phrase, if I liked Saudi Arabia so much, I’d go live there.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Well that’s one of the deeper issues. I think THE deeper issue is that ‘the State’ is responding to decades of inertia and ignorance by local authorities and football clubs quite happy to pay lip service to bigots and the organised sectarianism of orders and gangs of people. Now that something is being attempted to be done everyone is crying about ‘freedom of speech’. The reality is individuals and at times whole communities being intimidated by forces who have at their heart, a hatred of catholics and the Irish. This is completely unacceptable. It has gone on for far too long and civil society is incapable of responding on its own. Part of the reason why this is so is that these divisions are supported by corporate and establishment bodies – the phenomena is not entirely spontaneous. So while its absolutely right to challenge the specific prosecution or the inadequacies of proposed legislation, it is incumbent on ‘anarchists’ or ‘libertarians’ or free-speech advocates to also suggest some ways in which this behaviour can be addressed.

      It’s very easy to be an armchair libertarian if you don’t live in the parts of our society most affected by the sharp end of bigoted violence. Anarchists should show some solidarity beyond talking about FOSS.

      1. milgram says:

        Granted. But I read this on the internet, in the context of the facebook riots appeal refusal, which is going to have serious real world consequences for at least one east ender.

        On the sectarian thing, when I lived in Glasgow the “Famine’s Over” stickers bothered me more than verbal abuse directed at Neil Lennon. And fans’ chants about him bother me less than the victim-blaming attitude that some TV presenters took when he was getting bombs posted to him. (“Lennon’s obviously a controversial figure but this is too much,” I think it was.)

        In that context, with the proviso that it’s all linked on a spectrum of bigotry, I can’t see jailing a facebook bigot as a useful contribution to ending sectarianism. It’s a trivial picking off of low-hanging fruit (while the tree stays rooted) that lets the state look like it’s doing something while also normalising the idea that its writ runs in cyberspace.

    2. I agree this is the bigger issue, and thought crime is specifically right; in fact I can’t think of a better phrase to describe what’s happened here. A message is being sent out to all people in Scotland who post on the internet, period; it’s not just for the sectarian crew, or whoever. Everyone who looks at this sentencing must ask themselves if the things they like or subscribe too or say on the internet is sanitary enough for the servers scanning it. It needn’t be this way. A simple piece of software or hardware could encrypt everything leaving our houses, but we don’t have that, although hopefully we will in the coming decade. All email should be encrypted as a matter of course, but none is, meaning it still retains its ‘postcard’ style of visibility. If we lose our anonymity we lose our humanity; nothing, including content ownership, government surveillance, and especially not data mining (the growth industry of the coming decades) justfies controlling the net down to its very last endpoint. In the case of Facebook, just as an example, my bits could be stored on my own PC, or my own server in my pocket or on my phone, and not at Facebook central, and I would notice no difference in service. Except that if anybody wanted access to my bits, they could do what they have always done to get information – which is show me a serach warrant.

  3. Albalha says:

    ‘hearing them in BBC RP is particularly surreal.’

    RP on BBC Scotland?

    1. Yeah I was wondering about that too, but I don’t reckon they sound Scots at all on the news. I would rather hear it read by Robbie Shepherd, but that’s just me

  4. Ray Bell says:

    I never joined Facebook. Thank God.

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