More on Tom Daley and the Twitter Trolls

Yes, free speech is a qualified right. Yes, one has to draw the line somewhere, and maybe @Rileyy_69 crossed that line. But I fear that this latest investigation reinforces the worrying pattern established by these earlier cases, and we may end up somewhere illiberal as a result.

After viewing some of the responses to my article on Tom Daley and Twitter trolls, I have been thinking some more about this issue, and the wider problem of people posting offensive and threatening things online.

Many responders felt that I was too lenient on @Rileyy_69, when I said that “This appears to be the kind of outburst that is commonplace in a noisy, modern, and connected society.”

In their view, the level of abuse was not an ‘outburst’ as I put it, but something more sustained. The same person posted threatening videos on YouTube, and the invective he posted on twitter was not limited to the Daley tweets on the day in question. If this behaviour is systematic rather than a heat-of-the-moment slip of the finger, then it should be treated as threatening behaviour. Or so the argument goes.

Others pointed to the specificity of the threats. Tom Daley’s username was mentioned in some of the tweets, meaning he would be aware of them. This takes the comments out of the realm of idle pub-style banter, and turns them into a specific threat. Very different from “the referee should be shot for that decision” comments, or “hang the bankers” political discourse. And because it was aimed at a person, not a building, one cannot draw a direct comparison with the celebrated Paul Chambers #TwitterJokeTrial tweeting.

I accept both these points. However, the fact that the police have become involved in the way they have still makes me uneasy. Having read what @Rileyy_69 posted, his stream of messages appear to me to be more the ravings of a frustrated youth. They read like the pathetic posturing of a wannabe gangsta. It is important to note that many of the most violent tweets directed at Daley and his others were in response to the humiliation he was receiving at the hands of the twitter mob. (Having said that, it is equally important to note that he had also been tweeting deeply unpleasant messages long before Tom Daley missed out on a synchronised diving medal). But the Internet is full of this kind of misanthropy, and I am left with the sense that this person has only been pursued by the police because he abused someone famous.

I also stand by my concept of “remote” harassment – there is surely a difference between this kind of abuse and the bullying of someone you know and to whom you are already in close proximity. This context seems to me to be important in determining when the police become involved.

This issue also points to a failure of Twitter, both the interface and the company. @Rileyy_69’s tweets clearly fall foul of Twitters Terms of Service. Why did no-one report his abuse and why was he not barred from the service? This would have cauterised the flow of invective long before Tom Daley took to the diving board, and long before the Devon Police arrived at @Rileyy_69’s house to begin questioning.

Some people have claimed that this is not a free speech issue, because offline laws have been broken.

Unfortunately, things are not so clear cut. Twitter is an international tool and the way it is used here impacts how it is used overseas. Leading into my Al Jazeera interview last month, the channel highlighted some international examples, including Hamza Kashgari who tweeted a dialogue with the prophet Mohammed, a blasphemous act in Saudi Arabia. If the line is simply drawn at “well, he broke a law” then that gives carte blanche to foreign government to censor social networks at will. Messages on Twitter are not the same as the same message said in real life or even in a video or on TV. The context of the message and the medium is important here. A tweet is a new kind of speech act. Laws at home abroad do not recognise this, but they should.

Finally, the Tom Daley case makes me uneasy because it fits so neatly into a pattern which includes Paul Chambers, but also people like Azar Ahmed who was prosecuted for saying unpleasant things about British soldiers, in what was clearly an example of political speech.

Yes, free speech is a qualified right. Yes, one has to draw the line somewhere, and maybe @Rileyy_69 crossed that line. But I fear that this latest investigation reinforces the worrying pattern established by these earlier cases, and we may end up somewhere illiberal as a result.

5 thoughts on “More on Tom Daley and the Twitter Trolls”

  1. The idea that Twitter should be policing free speech makes me significantly more nervous than the law doing the same. As someone said elsewhere Twitter has moved beyond being a ‘website’ or a company to being a platform like email in the way that it is used. I want Twitter to back off and let us use it rather than stomping through deciding what’s ok and what’s not. Their service has become an important part of my life to the extent that I’d find it difficult to leave it because I disagreed with a decision they made. I’d rather police officers, accountable to politicians who are accountable to me, decide what crosses the line of acceptable speech.

    On this specific issue I waver but I do think that the messages and the context (sustained abuse, @-ed threats, violent language, etc) amounts to harassment and makes him a viable threat. Daley could easily have felt intimidated by those messages and I maintain that despite his reaction (we’ve all responded with humour and bravado when feeling intimidated) his freedom of speech is threatened by that harassment and intimidation. I also think that threats of violence even (particularly?) from 17-year-old boys should be taken very seriously indeed.
    …continued

  2. The Chambers thing was clearly not a serious threat, was a one off and in no way in context with previous actions. It’s just completely different.

    I think a lot of these arrests (the two kids who used Facebook to ‘incite’ a riot that never happened for example) are ridiculous but I think this crossed a line. A warning should suffice for now though.

    As I said yesterday I think this highlights the need for a proper re-evaluation of how we protect freedom of speech online. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the old rules and ideas can’t be directly transposed online so I think we need to look back at why we need to protect freedom of speech and how we can make that work online.

  3. What is slightly alarming – and what might be flashing at the edge of many peoples vision – is the speed at which the police directly intervened. The problem here is that it is temporally twinned with LOCOGs aggressive legal activity.

    It would have been more in keeping with normal behaviour for the police to wait for a week or so and then to move – unless they had good reason to believe a real threat needed to be stopped. But their main recourse should simply have been to ask Twitter to honour their own agreement and cut the account in question.

  4. My quibble with much of the press coverage yesterday, not just yours, is that they seemed to think the one tweet Tom daley retweeted was the extent of the abuse. I looked at the account before it was protected and there was a sustained barrage of abuse which was clearly taking place before before he retweeted anything. It wasn’t a disgruntled fan in any way shape or form, it was a troll of the most unpleasant variety.

    Tom Daley is not a professional political commentator who can reasonably expect a certain cut and thrust of opinion. He is just 18 and as I understand it has already had to move schools once in recent years because of bullying. In some respects he is quite a vulnerable person: he has a high profile, but is very young, and has had recent tragedies. It is typical of a bully to target such a person. I really don’t see why he has to go through the olympics worrying that he might get his head kicked in when he returns to plymouth.

  5. “This issue also points to a failure of Twitter, both the interface and the company. @Rileyy_69′s tweets clearly fall foul of Twitters Terms of Service. Why did no-one report his abuse and why was he not barred from the service? This would have cauterised the flow of invective long before Tom Daley took to the diving board, and long before the Devon Police arrived at @Rileyy_69′s house to begin questioning.”

    I think the reason no one reported his abuse to twitter is that too many people were enjoying the spectacle and taking part in it. This is a serious problem when something winds up a police action, not least because the twitter storm looks like evidence.

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