Twitter Jail

The speed with which social media sites such as Facebook and twitter have caught on in recent years is astonishing. And as these sites become used by more and more people – and become more prominent in daily life – another interesting and, some say, worrying trend has increased also. This is the repercussions and the ramifications that come about following people’s inappropriate tweets. There have been a number of cases of this in recent months.

Some of the most high-profile were very serious cases of racist abuse. A student who tweeted racist tweets about Fabrice Muamba, just after Muamba collapsed during a football match, was jailed for 56 days. A similar case involved another student who was arrested after sending racist tweets to Stan Collimore. In this case, the student got off without jail time.

There is nothing strange in itself in either of these cases. There are very few that would argue with the arrest and conviction of someone who racially abuses another person. However, other cases are not so clear-cut. For instance, a man in England was found guilty of sending a “grossly offensive and menacing tweet” when he called a local councillor a “c**t” in a tweet. Having been found guilty of this, he could face up to six months in jail. Some on Twitter see this as having serious implications for freedom of speech. He has been supported in large numbers on Twitter, where the hashtag #freethebexleyone became a trending topic.

Then there was the case of the man who tweeted the following about Robin Hood Airport in England: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” He was arrested and his iPhone, laptop and desktop hard drive were confiscated during a search of his house. A month later, he was found guilty of “sending a menacing message” and ordered to pay £1,000 in fines and legal costs. He received many messages of support from fellow tweeters, with some famous names, such as Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross, offering to help with his costs.

And probably the most controversial recent tweet was the tweet about TV pundit, Grace Dent, that compared her to a horse. Dent is a client of the PR company the tweeter worked for and in her twitter reply to him, she intimated that he would lose his job over the tweet.

None of this is to in any way mitigate the offensive and – in many cases, racist and sexist – language that was used in these tweets. Any kind of abusive or – as it was rightly labelled – bullying language used in tweets should be roundly condemned. It does, however, raise some interesting questions. There are many walks of life in which such bad language is used.  How many of us have seen drivers cut off by another car shout similar abusive language? How many of us have seen parents shout abusive language at referees at the side of a pitch? Or have heard some of the taunts and abusive language used in and out of pubs on an average Saturday night? But these people would never be arrested (unless they were physically abusive).

As I said at the beginning, there are those who see this as a worrying trend. By all means, anyone who engages in racist abuse should be punished, but how far does society take this issue of online abuse? Is it only if someone engages in using “offensive” language? And how do we define “offensive language”? I’ve seen some major bust-ups on Twitter that – if we were to go by these guidelines – would have landed both parties in jail!

What do you think? I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.


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14 thoughts on “Twitter Jail

  1. Interesting article, Derek, and something that concerns me greatly for the simple reason that irony and sarcasm are not taken into consideration. – As in the case of the guy who, a few months ago, tweeted ‘I’m going to destroy America’ just before he was due to take a trip there. He meant it as a joke, and I for one would not need that explaining to me. But Homeland security does not have a sense of humour, which to me is sign that you are dealing with mad people. Humour is an integral, every day part of our make-up.

    I also believe that these kind of draconian reactions, and the legislations that are being forced upon the populous are coldly calculated to scare the public into never ever saying anything even remotely critical of a person, government or nation, even if they are saying it ironically in order to imply that they believe the opposite.

    Thought police.

  2. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that anyone could be jailed or fined for using “offensive, menacing or abusive language.”
    And for someone to receive reprimand over comparing someone to a horse is plain silly..
    We’ve become a world of over-sensitive twits.
    Political correctness is out of control these days…

    Great post, Derek.

  3. A few thoughts:

    -First ‘freedom of speech’ is not a fundamental right, contrary to popular opinion. They have freedom of speech in America at law. In Australia, we don’t (although that’s probably news to most Australians) we only have ‘freedom of political communication’, which means we can say whatever we like about politicians so long as it relates to their fitness for office. So freedom of speech can only be threatened in those countries that have a right at law to it. I don’t know if the UK does.

    -Second, profanity is still illegal in many countries, it just isn’t enforced for financial and practical reasons. I, for one, though, would like it if more people saw the value in exercising a bit of restraint when it comes to offensive language. Swearing at a police office is still a good way to get yourself arrested in some places.

    -Third, while I agree that jokes may be made about ‘blowing things up’ etc., what would the public say if someone tweeted that, the appropriate department took no action, and THEn that person actually did blow the airport up? I think perhaps in a job like that you can’t afford to have a sense of humour. What if it was as easy for terrorists to go undetected as to make jokes on twitter about it?

    I do agree that the instances you have outlined are a bit excessive, but what people need to remember is that online behaviour has consequences the same as offline BUT far more people are seeing it. Behaviour that, offline, might go unremarked,is seen by far more people online, exists almost in perpetuity, and spreads like wildfire. consider:

    -the joke about blowing up the airport would get a few chuckles around the BBQ with your mates and nobody arrests you because no one ever knew about it – but what if you walked into Homeland Security and said I’m going to blow up the airport?
    -the employee of a PR firm slanders his client to his wife, and nothing happens – because he didn’t say it to his client’s face. If he had said it to his client’s face, I expect the end result would have been fairly similar

    You can’t just say if it happened offline the result would have been different, you have to factor in the way the information spreads online the way it doesn’t offline.

    What I think is far more interesting is how social media is affecting crime and the like e.g. a man arrested and convicted for murder in Australia after declaring his intention o facebook to murder his daughter (very, very sad case), employers firing staff because they posted on facebook they were chucking a sickie (and forgot they had ‘friended’ their boss) and photos of drinking posted on facebook being used in drink driving cases as evidence of the accused’s character.

    The word to the wise is be careful what you post online because far more people than your best friends are watching.

    Sorry for the extraordinarily long comment 🙂

  4. Hi Derek–

    Great posts and wow, what a thoughtful post and what thoughtful readers and comments. I live in the US in Baltimore, a short distance from Washington, DC, and we fiercely guard our 1st Amendment Rights (Freedom of Speech).

    However that does not extend to safety. You can’t shout FIRE in a crowded theatre or pull a fire alarm in a hospital, unless there’s a real fire, without repercussions. You will also be scrutinized for anything that a reasonable person might consider to be a threat to the President of the US, government officials or national security. We often have alerts at our airport because of suspicious behaviors or comments. You cannot use the word BOMB to a TSA official. You WILL be taken aside and interrogated.

    As a professor and mother (and some say harpy) I always ask: “Will it stand the headline test?” After you put something on the Internet, unless you OWN the site, it is very hard to delete that message. Do you want that to be something you look at in the light of day, or years later, and say, “What was I thinking?” Teenagers have a hard time seeing that far ahead. And so do some adults!

    Tweets and FB posting and even comments such as these are fair game for employers and national security. They are public comments and conversations. As such, we should engage in respectful, civil dialogue, even if we disagree.

    Thanks, Derek for a great conversation.


  5. You make a strong augment, Ciara. But I do have to take issue with this thing to do with humour. If an official can not be convinced that what you said was meant as a joke through the means of a conversation with the person that said it, then as far as I am concerned you are dealing with mad people. By mad I mean that they are not in reality; they are in a corrupted version of reality, and they become blind to the blindingly obvious.

    I agree with much of what you say: We should show some restraint; we should be aware that we are not sitting around the BBQ with close friends etc. But if those that make the laws can not be reasoned with, and in my experience they can’t, then I reject everything that they represent.

    The problem, as in so many areas of life, is that things should be dealt with on a case by case approach, and there is not the will to do that. Instead draconian laws are being passed that are impinging on people’s liberty.

    It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

  6. Dean – agreed that probably the method of investigation was inappropriate! There should be something between making the comment and arrest, and legal systems are supposed to have a concept of proportionality – good ones anyway. More likely this is a case of bureaucracy gone mad than an actual problem with the underlying laws, although I say that purely out of cynicism from dealing with too many bureaucracies LOL. This is less a case of law-makers than law-enforcers though, I think.

    These issues always are tricky and a good law is difficult to draft in advance because you have to try and foresee all the possible consequences.

    The more bureaucracy we have, the less case by case assessment and the more one size its all. It infuriates me. On the other hand it keeps me in a job…

  7. That is such a good distinction, Ciara: The law makers and the law enforcers are not the same people. And as you say, drafting a law must be one of the trickiest things in the world to do, really, except for the obvious laws like ‘don’t kill’ etc.

    Thanks again, Derek – such a good thought provoking article and responses.

  8. I agree that people shouldn’t engage in racist etc type comments, however there’s a pretty distinct line (in my mind at least) that should be drawn here. People say stupid and downright awful things all the time, most don’t think about what affect their words have on people. That doesn’t make it right to say it, but punishing people for it is too 1984 for me. So, in the social media world, I believe if you make a racist type comment DIrECTLY to the person or business you’re upset with, well that’s more intimidating than say just making an offhanded comment on Twitter for only your followers to see (again, I’m not condoning!).

    So, include the person/business on the comment so they SEE it=bad.

    Make a stupid comment you’ll never be able to get back for only those who like you to see=stupid but shouldn’t be punishable.

  9. A Malaysian court has ordered a senior ethnic Indian journalist to pay about 160,000 USD in damages to a businessman for defaming him on Twitter—and a lot of folks believe that the journalist was only whistle-blowing on the businessman’s activities. What is damaging or abusive is relative… great post!

  10. Once upon a time about three months ago, it was pointed out to me that “what we say online” is technically a statement in a print medium. While in the US we have the freedom of speech, what gets posted online isn’t speech–it’s written statements. Although Twitter and Facebook and other sites try to emulate or replace conversation, the end result is a ton of self-published brief statements in print. It’s why there’s a differentiation between slander and libel. A court can use notes on sticky pads as evidence but can’t use hearsay, and the internet is basically a giant sticky note that everyone writes on. Sometimes that’s very hard to remember.

  11. Well, since politicial correctness came to be a popular trend, common sense has become unusual in what is offensive. Technically shouldn’t matter if it offends people or not if you go by the true sense of the original ammendment of freedom of speech. However, that’s been alter more & more every year, who knows what the true sense is. To me, people should use their common sense & decency to monitor their words. But we seem to move closer & closer to socialism in this country everyday. Freedom to be a racist or be an utter bastard of society was protected since this type of issues shouldn’t be a legal requirement. However, government seems to move closer to deciding what is law based on moral & ethical behavior.
    So as much as I hate racism & truly stupid, igorant jackasses, I hate losing a country that you were free to be that dumb.

  12. So interesting! I think freedom of speech is an intwgral part of American society. Ban them from twitter. But arresting them seems a violation of rights. Something to think about . . .

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