Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make it bullying – it's free speech
Published 16/04/2014 | 02:30
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy but no one has the right to be free from criticism.
A spat between two media personalities – RedFM DJ Neil Prendeville and magician Keith Barry – demonstrates an increasing tendency to conflate online criticism with cyberbullying or harassment.
On Friday, Prendeville cancelled an appearance by Barry on his show because he had appeared on a rival station earlier that morning.
Barry claimed his appearance was cancelled at short notice and lambasted the DJ on his Facebook account, saying that he would be calling his celebrity friends and asking them to boycott the radio show.
Meanwhile, Prendeville has disputed Barry's version of events, claiming Barry was given plenty of notice, and accused the performer of cyberbullying.
"To encourage artists to boycott me, to actively contact them, to encourage his Twitter and Facebook followers not to listen online – this is online bullying and that is wrong. It jeopardises innocent people and it jeopardises their jobs," he said.
The implication appeared to be that because Barry made his derogatory comments online, as opposed to on air or in a letter to a newspaper, they were automatically imbued with an added layer of toxicity.
This is nonsense. Whatever happened on Friday morning, to try to suggest that Barry was guilty of bullying when he outlined his grievances on his social media accounts is ludicrous.
Disagreeing with someone, even vociferously, is not bullying. It's debate and spurious accusations of cyberbullying serve just one purpose – to shut debate down.
According to a recent book on the issue, cyberbullying is defined as "bullying online that is repetitive, over time, and between two actors of differential power".
In order for online abuse to rise to the level of bullying it must have three component parts: intentional harm, repetition and a power imbalance such that the victim is unable to respond effectively or successfully defend himself or herself.
While Barry may have wanted to damage the show, in retaliation for his alleged mistreatment, he has not mounted a prolonged online campaign against Prendeville, who defended himself very capably in a lengthy 15-minute monologue on Monday.
Allegations of cyberbullying, in frivolous disputes like this one, don't just make a mockery of the principles of free speech, they also serve to undermine the seriousness of actual cases of real bullying.
When British journalist Caroline Criado-Perez received a series on death and rape threats from two anonymous online trolls on Twitter that was unquestionably bullying.
The threats were persistent, clearly intended to cause harm and, because they came from anonymous accounts, Criado-Perez was unable to defend herself or determine if they were credible.
The court that prosecuted those trolls earlier this year heard that Ms Criado-Perez was bombarded with sinister messages from one woman posing as a man who had just been released from prison.
"I've only just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried!!" (sic) and "Rape?! I'd do a lot worse things than rape you!!" were examples of the kind of abhorrent messages she sent.
The sustained campaign of intimidation caused the journalist, she said, life-changing psychological damage.
To try to suggest that the treatment meted out to Prendeville, from a disgruntled guest over a scheduling issue, was in any way analogous to the horrific abuse suffered by Criado-Perez is not just stupid, it's insulting.
Regrettably, resorting to using the "bullying card" is a tool that is increasingly being used by those who dislike having their opinions challenged by the hoi polloi online.
Some high-profile commentators, who have long been given platforms in traditional media, have reacted with horror when they find that their views are not universally popular in online forums.
However, holding a minority view does not automatically confer martyr status on an individual. It just means their opinions are unpopular.
This phenomenon was evident during the Pantigate controversy when some commentators, railing against the online backlash, seemed to suggest that central to the concept of free speech was the right to express an opinion without that opinion being challenged or derided.
No such right exists.
Freedom of speech is constrained by the harm principle – meaning that it does not include hate speech, defamatory comments or threats and intimidation.
However, this harm principle is in danger of now being expanded to include an offence principle – meaning that people seem to think they have a right to not be offended by opinions or that people have the right to not be pilloried for their opinions.
If there is a threat to freedom of speech in this country, it is not coming from social media, but from people who prefer to make accusations of bullying instead of defending their opinions from legitimate criticism.