The forced filter on social media stars | Lois McLatchie

“NFT” – “non-fungible token” – may not be the catchy phrase you were expecting to find dominating our vernacular. But Collins Dictionary have recently announced the term as their “word of the year”, narrowly beating out finalists “crypto” and “cheugy”. If you, like me, are beginning to wonder if you are indeed a native English speaker after all, let me assist – an NFT is  “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” In other words, it’s a stamp of authenticity to allow ownership of original pieces of digital material. Jack Dorsey, for example, just sold the NFT to his first tweet for $2.9million. As a new generation come to power in a world that they have only ever known to feature the internet, a grasp on authenticity is clearly in very high demand. 

It’s no wonder the hunger for reality amongst the young has proven insatiable. They inherited their understanding of the word “authenticity” from avocado-obsessed millennials, who throughout the 2010s, stamped #nofilter, #keepingitreal and #perfectlyimperfect all over perfectly doctored pictures of manicured lives. It’s a habit now ridiculed. But how are the 2020s really faring? 

Perhaps we’re not slapping filters on our selfies quite so much. Models of different body types and unconventional styles are more popular than ever. But as the obsession with aesthetic “perfection” (and related humble brags) drifts, the pressure is mounting on social influencers to edit their lives to adhere to socially-approved standards in another department – their opinions.  

Just ask Kika Nieto. The young Colombian Youtube sensation caught Latin American headlines last month. She had totally embraced her audience’s hunger for authenticity in a world of beautified distortion. Embraced it too much, some argued. The Instagram star hosted an “AMA” – (“Ask Me Anything” video) – for her 8million followers, promising an opportunity to really get to know the human underneath her iconic blue hair and Instagram pouts. Bare facts. Honest truth. And then, the star stepped on a faultline of mainstream acceptability. She was asked about her thoughts on marriage. 

I really hope that everyone who is watching this video knows that not all people have the same opinion and that’s okay. I think that God made us all and created man and created woman for man to be with woman and woman to be with man and that’s it. Whatever we have done after that as man with man and woman with woman, I think it’s not right. However, I do have friends who are gay, I have friends who are lesbian, I love them with all my heart. And if I know one thing and I am completely sure of it, it is that God is love. And he calls me to love people. Without judging them.” 

The school of influencing had forgotten to warn Kika that while her face shouldn’t be overly filtered to meet societal expectations, her voice certainly should. Before she knew it, she was in court, sued by activists for spreading apparently hateful messages, and forced by a judge to take the video down. Supported by ADF International, Kika challenged the ruling, appealing to the highest court of the country, and won her case. The YouTube video stands online again today. But the chill on free expression felt by all young influencers trying to follow her wake of success will freeze online speech long into the future. 

And it’s not just influencers who are catching a shiver. Successful female politicians too, once celebrated as champions of equality, are being dragged through courts for sharing their real views online. In perhaps the most egregious example seen in Europe in the online era, Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen faces a criminal trial in January – for the sake of a simple tweet. The grandmother, former Minister of the Interior and national celebrity – who appeared on the hit show “The Masked Singer” – could face up to two years in jail. She questioned her church leadership’s decision to sponsor the Helsinki Pride Parade in 2019. She attached a picture of a Bible verse to her tweet – words sworn on by judges and leaders and communities for over 2,000 years, now considered potentially worthy of imprisonment.  

In holding an opinion that differs from the current social orthodoxy, women like Kika and Päivi threw a spanner into the machinery of an arena that claims to be empowering women to be more than simply “pretty faces”. Be empowered, women; unless you’re that sort of woman. Trust women; believe them! Unless they hold different opinions than what we like to hear. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it seems the standard of acceptable “authenticity” is held in the judgmental hands of the cancel mob.  

Meanwhile in the UK, our approach to policing speech online has not helped. The outdated Communications Act of 2003 – which passed through parliament before YouTube, Facebook or Twitter had ever graced our screens – criminalises digital communications that can be considered “grossly offensive” or “fake news” post causing “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”. Thankfully, the Law Commission has recognized that the law needs updating; but the proposals on the table won’t do much to help the next British Kika Nieto or  Päivi Räsänen from winding up in prison. The Commission has proposed a new “harm-based” offense, criminalising social media interactions which cause “psychological harm” amounting to “serious distress”.  Unfortunately, such feelings are widely open to interpretation and can be wrongly used to censor legitimate expressions of views. When JK Rowling tweets about the facts of biological womanhood and the need for safe female spaces, for example, many of her opponents claim to be experiencing “serious distress”. Given legal teeth, who knows what difficulties might, at the hands of the cancel mob, befall the author of the world’s bestselling book series of all time. The government has tended to rely heavily on the proposals of the Law Commission, for example in the recent, controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Twitter pundits and wannabe influencers alike may want to watch with baited breath as to how the government will respond to these new online recommendations impacting their speech. 

As Gen-Z shake off their predecessor’s “cheugy” obsessions with filtered perfection, perhaps there’s some hope for a cultural renaissance for unfiltered, honest speech too. The evolution of social media, allowing everyone a voice, could and should serve as a space for free and fair debate. But democracy only works if free speech is for all – including for “problematic” women who believe in traditional marriage. Whether the UK will be able to accommodate and protect the next outspoken, blue-haired Kika Nieto in its online policy remains to be seen.  

Lois McLatchie writes for human rights group ADF UK and can be found on Twitter @LoisMcLatch

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