SPEAK FREELY??? – Free speech, accidental underwear snaps and Gibraltar’s prolific opinion forum

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The USA is hailed (or hails itself as) the “land of the free”, a beacon of democracy, and their president, the so-called leader of the free world (though the jury’s out on that bit at the moment). The first amendment to their constitution demands the exercise of free speech, the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances’. Freedom of speech is a fundamental prerequisite for democracy, and as such should be protected and given the utmost importance. It is often the case, however, that when freedom of speech is cited as the singular defence for an opinion or a view, you can bet things are being taken too far. Donald Trump’s short time in office has led to much debate on this subject, as his often intolerant, blatantly racist rhetoric has arguably encouraged widespread stereotyping, right-wing extremism and an online community of followers citing “free speech” as their protector.

Now, shift your mind from the complicated political climate in America and beyond, from the global far-right movement being hailed as an epidemic and the general political madness of 2017. Come back to the little bubble that is our home and to the even smaller microscopic entity that is Gibraltar’s “Speak Freely!!!”. The almost 23,000 person strong Facebook community’s cover photo paints a pretty clear picture of the values they promote: an image of a graffiti artist spelling out the words ‘free speech’ on a wall. The group was started after the creator, Bill Pisani, noticed much debate when he mentioned the subject of free speech on another local Facebook page. As such, Speak Freely as we know it today was born, but not without much controversy-sparking postings and conversations. One of the current admins, Steven ‘Noni’ Belilo argues that the original intention remains, citing a fairly recent ‘popular trend’ in Gibraltar to express individual opinions through social media as the driving force.

However, expressing an opinion is far from new to Gibraltarians who rarely shy away from debate. Traditionally set in el patio dating back decades, and seasonally transferred to beach umbrellas or baracas, political and cultural opinions have long been exchanged amongst vecinos and friends. With the rise of the Internet, a generation of social media “scrollers” and 3G finally being stepped up on the Rock (sort of), such conversations can continue into the cyber world at any given time or place. Speak Freely gives people a platform to a broader audience of “neighbours” and range of topics, where you can shout your – however ill-informed and possibly biased – opinion from the rooftops (with caps lock and over-use of exclamation marks a favourite amongst users).

Unlike the traditional patio setting, the views expressed are recorded, and neither spin nor Chinese-whisper adaptations can change that. This is where it gets interesting; the reality of cyberspace hits some users hard, whereas it leaves the rest of us physically face palming. The harsh reality of such permanence hit some harder than others, as some of the (unintentionally) funnier postings have shown. A woman recently posted in earnest, ‘I’ve got a lizard in my room. Are they dangerous?’ and was faced with 181 comments, some stifling laughter to reassure her, others simply replying with ‘HAHA’. Belilo described one of the more memorable postings this year. ‘The best one this year would have to be a man who was advertising a house for rent and posted a picture in which he could be seen reflected in a mirror in his underwear. When I got home and saw it, I had to delete the post but unfortunately, after two hours on our page, the damage was done and it went viral.’ The poor guy was circulated as a screenshot across many a Whatsapp group chat around the Rock.

As much as the group’s original intention was to encourage political debate, it has somewhat morphed into a page of small-scale advertising, funny postings but mostly, where Gibraltarians congregate to complain. From how long the waiting list for an appointment at the GHA dental clinic is, to describing poor service at a local restaurant to “warn” others, complaining about faulty ATMs and of course “el gobierno”. One of my favourite recent posts saw a photo posted of a motorbike apparently belonging to a high ranking official of Gibraltar Car Parks Limited parked on the pavement. The accompanying caption took passive aggression to another level, asking everyone to join in his disappointment with this ‘inconsiderate’ behaviour. Nothing gripes a Gibraltarian more than our parking woes, so of course, more than a hundred people commented on the post, citing the corruption of this individual, giving little notice to the fact the bike may not have actually belonged to the accused (despite the ‘good sources’ cited by the person who posted) and instead called for the man to be sacked.

The page is used almost as a government department complaints forum, where many a bad experience is recounted. Belilo said this came about as a result of the success people had experienced lodging a complaint on the page, where it will garner much more attention in the public sphere, compared to going through the traditional avenues. ‘I believe the public no longer believe in making formal complaints, as it seems things get done quicker with a post on Speak Freely. The fact that the group has contributed to many positive results means we get more people joining the group [for that purpose].’ And the results do come, as a post from a government housing recipient complaining of their extreme case of damp in their home finally was given some attention by the relevant departments following a post on Speak Freely, after months of exploring all official avenues had given little reprieve.

An interesting and repeated complaint this year was that of the National Day bank holiday debacle. A post calling for a petition to be made to change the bank holiday to the 11th of September (as is customary when the 10th falls on a weekend), instead of the 4th, gained 1,600 likes and over 600 comments. Their argument was that it broke from tradition and also would deprive us of a much needed rest day after the National Day’s festivities. Complaining about the placement of a bank holiday and actually petitioning for its change seems to completely underpin our huge sense of entitlement as a people, as it’s actually laughable whichever side of the “debate” (if you can call it that) you sit on. No one was suggesting this bank holiday be taken away, nor has it been shifted to a date months away, but still, it garnered the most traction of any post I could find. No matter how much razon the petition had, for this to seriously be the cultural issue most pressing on our minds, I think our priorities are a little skewed. But we Gibraltarians are extremely protective of our bank holidays, so my surprise is probably misplaced.

If we’re looking at silly petitions however, a post from last September (I’ve done a lot of scrolling), suggested that a petition should be started to lower prices for beer on the Rock, or at least in Morrisons café, where the complainant paid £2.95 for a can of Carling. ‘Highway robbery without a gun’ was the phrase he used to describe his horrific ordeal. I can only hope counselling and the support of the 158 likes he garnered (however ironic they were) helped him through the tough experience.

The trivial postings go beyond complaints and petitions and find their full potential in the use of the page as a search engine. ‘Is Morrisons open on a bank holiday?’, ‘Anyone have any good series to recommend?’ and the panicked last minute postings looking for tickets for various events happening on the Rock. These increasingly congest the page on the actual day of said event, be it the annual music festival, National Day or New Year, as identical posts stream in. Harmless, if not pointless and lazy, but as most things on the page, the questions asked often get taken to another level. Nosy postings asking about the source of ambulance or police sirens provoke private details of incidents and accidents being shared on the group, whether verified or not. Our morbid obsession with knowing details lead to photos being attached, and it is this kind of abuse of the online community’s function which has led the admin team to delete various comments, threads and posts altogether. The admin team are very quick to act, and also chastise the culprits for their irresponsible postings, but unfortunately, the damage is often already done. The seriousness of a family member recognising a person or vehicle in a quick snapshot of an accident, arrest or other serious incident, before they have actually received official news of it doesn’t seem to cross the mind of those craving the social “fame” of delivering the most information on an incident. The “you heard it here first” mentality of the press seems almost a facet of human nature on the page, but unlike responsible journalism, fact-finding and verifying sources of information do not come into the fold, and as such, Speak Freely’s good intentions can have some troubling side-effects.

Conversation does (finally) return to the political spectrum on occasion, and the postings vary from the light-hearted to the extreme. Patriotic postings litter the page in regards to almost every issue. From criticising the amount of flags on display outside people’s homes in the lead up to National Day to anti-Brexit fervour, no issue is too small nor large to be addressed by the “patriots” that congest the page with their views. But as with much of the content on this page, the opinions can get extreme, with patriotism often verging on greedy nationalism. A post noting the government’s plan to house a Syrian refugee family created a heated debate in the comment thread, combining two of the issues mentioned most on the page: housing and patriotism. The oblivious, well-meaning user who started the thread, willing the government to consider accepting more refugee families, could not have expected the responses to her welcoming attitude. The phrase ‘charity begins at home’ was a favoured expression amongst respondents, with commenters comparing the plight of a refugee family in war torn Syria to those ‘suffering’ on the housing list. Can you imagine, the government hasn’t handed you a new flat on a silver platter, and forces you to live with your parents, and yet they’re going to give a house to a non-local family that have been dodging bullets, bombs and forced to flee the homes they spent a lifetime building. Poor you. ‘Help our own before helping others’ and explicitly racist comments flooded the post, and unfortunately showcased the worst of the online community. Expressing disagreement with the government’s decision of course is anyone’s right, however, the ignorant and nationalistic undertones of too many of the comments are a worrying dimension to the group, as even those with intolerant ideas have the platform to “speak freely”.

Admin Belilo addresses this issue, saying; ‘Like in every group, those with extreme views seem to be the loudest, however, one needs to read comments on threads containing extreme views to see that the majority don’t share them.’ And though I do think the majority can be on the extreme side, I can agree with him in that there are always two sides to the issues posed, and some calling for a degree of perspective and calm in the face of downright ignorance. However, it is difficult to read some of the threads such as the one I’ve highlighted, and perhaps those ‘loud’ voices need reeling in, and there needs to be a boundary placed at some point to limit the damage that many of these comments can cause. Drawing a line in this way is undoubtedly difficult, but perhaps begin at the point in which race, religion, sexuality and gender prejudice is involved. Belilo defends his open policy to all opinions, explaining, ‘I always said that if someone cannot respect an opinion or is quickly offended by other’s point of view, then Facebook is not for them.’ And one can understand that he is treading a difficult balance though, with the current global political climate exposing the underlying divisiveness that exists among seemingly tolerant communities, you could also argue that allowing such conversations to go ahead can threaten the unified community which we as Gibraltarians expound with such pride.

Having a platform to express any opinion is (in theory) a huge step forward for Gibraltar though. The page has given an opportunity to speak to a large portion of the Gibraltarian community which only realistically existed in the realms of the “Letter to the Editor” section in the Gibraltar Chronicle. Not only that, but because of our size and resultant proximity to many of the policies, individuals and groups that are up for criticism, there has always been an added stigma attached to the outspoken individual. Lack of discerning voices and constructive criticism in the community can never be positive, as political, cultural and communal improvements can only thrive in an environment which encourages debate and discussion. The problem is that Speak Freely’s deviation from its original debate function to that of search engine, complaints forum and small business advertiser takes away from the benefits, and results in it being taken somewhat less seriously (to put it lightly).

We can all agree it is a page which divides opinion and plays to extremes and, as such, fittingly puts on display the best and worst of our people. It plays on our sense of entitlement no doubt, our ability to pick out a complaint in any situation and to an extent our close-minded, tradition-clinging attitudes. With that though, the page also showcases the best of us, our ability as a community to support one another, our generosity and raucous sense of humour. Maybe going back to the roots of its creation as a discussion forum and a little more involvement on the part of admin, guiding conversation to current issues, instead of having to sift through complaints and mundane requests (as my research made glaringly obvious) could revive a potentially powerful asset in our community’s cyber sphere. Just a thought, maybe I’ll put it up for discussion on the page…

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